It started like a typical illness might. That rundown feeling. A low-grade fever. Just feeling “off,” as 40-something Pamela puts it. And then, “I call it the baby elephant on the chest.”
That was the telltale sign that she may have COVID-19. “I’ve never felt that before in my life and it’s scary. I couldn’t take in a deep breath. The cough didn’t start until a couple days later. And that was like a dry-hacking cough. I would call it a smoker’s cough, and I haven’t been a smoker in five years. It felt like I was breathing in a bunch of dust. I would wake up in the middle of the night to a coughing attack.”
The weekend before she got sick, Pamela, a small-business owner living in Northern Virginia, had a busy couple of days. She went to her doctor to pick up a prescription. She drove up to Pennsylvania for a college alumni event with hundreds of people in attendance. She stopped at a restaurant on her way home. Got her hair done. And picked up her dog at the kennel before heading back to her condo. “I was exposed to a lot of people that weekend,” she says.
After realizing she wasn’t just fighting a cold, she had a telehealth appointment with her doctor, who told her she likely had COVID-19—but he wouldn’t be able to get her a test. “You’re not 65, you have no underlying health conditions and you haven’t just visited China or Seattle,” he told her, which were the criteria back in mid-March when she got sick. While daily headlines keep track of the number of positive COVID-19 cases and deaths, there is a population of people in the region—and across the nation—who also likely have the virus, but aren’t in the official count because of a lack of testing. Pamela said she knows at least six people with presumptive positives—including two friends who were also at the college networking event she attended.
And, although she says she’s one of the lucky ones (no hospitalization, no dangerous dips in oxygen levels), her illness has dragged on for well over the two-week period that health officials have presented as the norm. After about 10 days, she thought she was better. “I did like 19 Zoom calls. I went to bed, woke up that night in a pool of sweat and had a fever the next day.” Her symptoms, which included exhaustion (“I would change my sheets and then just lay there for three hours because it was so tiring.”) and loss of smell and taste (“Everything tasted the same no matter what I ate.”), dragged on for weeks. “The baby elephant,” she says, returned Easter weekend, about a month after she first got sick.
Her doctor told her to keep resting and connected her with a mental health professional because, as she says, the anxiety about the unknown was also starting to take a toll.
“You’re scared. [You’re wondering], ‘What the hell is this?’ My doctor said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get better,’ and I’m like, ‘You don’t know!’ He said it could be like mono. It could be months [before I recover]. Nobody knows.” As she attempts to beat the virus and get back to normal life, she says she wants people to know that everyone is vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
“What I have been most frustrated with is the consistent message that it’s old people, it’s vulnerable people, it’s obese people, it’s poor people, it’s people with underlying conditions [who get sick]. And everybody is just a number,” she says. “We have to be speaking out because I don’t fit into any of those categories. I’m looking at my friends who are all in their 30s, 40s, 50s, no health problems and everyone is going, ‘Whatever, your case is mild. You’ll be over that in two weeks. You’re fine.’ … It’s not like the flu. It will screw up your life for some time, and it’s a very scary thing.”
This post originally appeared in our June/July 2020 print issue‘s cover story, focusing on the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on Northern Virginia. For more medical-focused articles, subscribe to our weekly Health newsletter.