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I let my guard down and got COVID-19 – This is what it’s like

Today is Day 7 and I am shredded and somewhere, deep within a well of memory inside me, I can hear my mother's voice: This too shall pass
In the middle of the night, I got a text message from my health care provider

On December 19, shortly after Shabbat ended in Israel and three stars shone in the cold December sky, Prime Minister Netanyahu showed a little leadership, rolled up his sleeves and got vaccinated publicly on camera, for the world to see.

I watched – tears rolling down my cheeks.

Was it a PR stunt for the prime minister? Maybe. But I do not care. With his pale arms showing, he looked as vulnerable as I’ve been feeling since March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Israel. He was suddenly as frail and as human as the rest of us.

I felt this deep lurch in my heart and this incredibly soothing warmth. I felt like everything was going to be ok, that after months of fumbling around in the dark, there were grownups who were taking charge. We had the vaccines in hand, and this was it.

There was light at the end of the tunnel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine, from his personal physician Dr. Tzvi Berkovitz, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first Israeli to get the vaccine. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

And so it’s been. The rollout plan has been nothing short of miraculous. Over a million Israelis have been vaccinated in just a little over two weeks.

Our post office loses packages.

It takes DAYS to make a simple bank transfer.

But with alacrity and aplomb, in just a hair over two weeks we’ve vaccinated 1 out of 9 Israelis.

It all comes down to organized chaos: The system with all its red tape and pulleys and levers has a heart and it all works together. It’s the kind of thing where at the vaccine clinic in Jerusalem at the end of the day, when Zvika or Amal have leftover shots, instead of bureaucratically chucking them in the bin, they go outside and yell “Hey, you – yeah, you over there by the bus. Nu? Yalla! Come get a vaccine!”

And lo! Another person is vaccinated.

This is Israel at its finest. It’s how we’ve insistently thrived against the odds. And it is also why we will eventually beat this thing.

But as the vaccine roll-out began, I also had that niggling in my stomach. “When will I get my shot?

And while I clicked refresh on my medical provider’s website over and over and over and over to see when people in my status bracket (under 60/no underlying medical conditions/neurotic and eager AF) would get our turn, something else happened.

I began to relax.

And I relaxed a little too much.

I let my guard down.

And… well, I got sick.

I still wore my mask assiduously. Truth is, I actually think I look pretty damn good in a mask. I have these pretty ones that my friend Timna sent me from Rebirth Urban Japanese Mask Design. They’re soft and breathable and the colors make my eyes pop, and no, I swear I don’t work for the company. They’re just awesome.

They cover my pimples and slim my jawline. No one tells me to smile! And you can’t see me mouthing the Mermaid Sea Witch curse at the guys hanging out by the falafel place who wear their masks around their chins. Yeah, I see you, Pinchas.

These masks are perfect.

So, I wore my mask.

Thanks, Timna

That wasn’t the issue. But even masks aren’t perfect.

I also washed my hands and used alco-gel.

So THAT wasn’t the issue. Although alco-gel isn’t perfect, either.

I’m not going to tell you how I got sick because  while I’m comfortable sharing my story, I’m not going to expose someone else. They’ve done their due-diligence and notified the folks they were with. They’re good.

Besides, everyone I know got sick a different way:

One friend got sick from a coworker.

Another got sick from a caregiver.

And someone else to this day has no idea where he got it. He never left the house and had his groceries delivered.

So telling you HOW and WHO isn’t going to help you, but what IS relevant is I let my guard down – a little too much proximity when I should have kept more distance – and I got sick.

And I’m here to tell you about it.

Then my boyfriend said, ‘you stink’

I’ll start at the beginning.

First of all, why am I doing this?

I’m doing this because you need to know that this isn’t a joke.

This isn’t a cold. This isn’t the flu.

This isn’t overblown.

COVID-19 is a drive-by arsonist that shoots flame throwers, then goes around the block, throws a few Molotov cocktails at your immune system, then does one of those screechy U-turns and sprays gasoline everywhere.

And I have a MILD case.

And while over a million have been vaccinated so far in Israel (WOOT!) there are still millions waiting – and around the world, things are moving much more slowly, so please: Wear your damn mask.

Think twice about going to a family party.

And remember that just because you only see one person doesn’t mean that that one person isn’t seeing 250 other people.

(OMG this actually sounds exactly like something my sex ed teacher taught us in 10th grade.)

Today is Day 7.

Actually, I THINK today is Day 7.

It’s hard to tell because the days blend together, and I’m not exactly sure how long I’ve been sick. It almost feels like I’ve always been sick. It’s a strange feeling – like my brain is old pea soup with stale crackers.

So… 7 days ago – I think – I started feeling tired. By then, I knew that I may have been exposed, but I didn’t feel sick. I just felt a little weak. But then my boyfriend said, “you stink.”

“Well, YOU stink!” I replied.

“No, I mean you smell,” he said, “like you didn’t use deodorant.”

Which was true. I had forgotten to put any on, but since I had checked and didn’t smell, I didn’t think I needed it.

“I don’t smell!” I told him.

“Yes, you do. I love you, but you smell.”

I sniffed under my armpit and nothing.

“Seriously?” I asked him. “Here: Smell.”

“UGH. GROSS!!!”

“But I don’t smell anything!”

He crossed his fingers in front of him like you do to ward off vampires and shouted CORONA CORONA and ran away.

(I hear he’s in New Zealand now raising sheep.)

(I’m kidding. The airports are closed.)

Anyway, later that night, I noticed that things smelled fainter in general – food tasted more bland. We had this roast lamb for dinner, and it hurt to swallow, and I could SENSE the flavors, but I couldn’t taste them.

By morning, I couldn’t taste the hazelnut coffee I look forward to. It was no different than hot water.

“Khalas, Corona,” I said. I felt tired, but it wasn’t so bad.

But I knew the hard part was just beginning. I’m not talking about getting a stick jammed so far up your nose that your brain feels violated, or monitoring worrisome breathing symptoms, or feeling that horrible, insidious feeling of a rogue plague take root… that’s all child’s play compared to having to do this:

Call the people you may have exposed.

Have you ever tested positive for an STI/STD?

I haven’t (tfu tfu tfu) but I imagine this is similar. You’re faced with a dilemma. You can take the easy route and say absolutely nothing and go about your business and get treated and tell no one. Or, you can suck it up, and grow a pair of ovaries or balls or whatever it takes to give you the moral courage to do the right thing and make your phone calls.

That’s what I did.

I went through the very short list of people I had seen between when I was sure I was exposed until that moment in time and I called them.

“Hi, this is incredibly awkward, but I just lost my sense of smell and taste, and I’m getting tested.”

The good news is in all these cases I had my mask on. I didn’t linger. The odds that folks got sick because of me were slim, but if roles were reversed, I’d want to know.

Bottom line: It was the right thing to do.

And that’s another reason why I’m writing this. There is a stigma around COVID-19. We call it the plague. We treat our sick like lepers. I get it – it’s scary. I remember once several months ago when I was on the phone with customer service for some computer repair shop, the guy on the other end coughed and my heart rate literally spiked and I almost hung up until I realized, no, you cannot actually catch COVID-19 THROUGH the phone.

The fear is real. And it’s gotten harder over the last several months to talk to people, to make eye contact. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to hug someone, and when we do, it feels like an act of defiance.

But as bad as the fear is, so is the stigma, and the stigma haunts us, and because of it, we are afraid to tell people when we might have exposed them, and so that means they go frolicking on their merry way exposing the people they know. Including their grandparents, or their sister-in-law with autoimmune disease. And that is a huge problem because we are getting people sick.

The fact is, being sick doesn’t make you dirty, or wicked, or stupid. Being sick makes you sick. That’s all. And the sooner we talk about it, the healthier we keep our community.

It also helps to talk about it for our own mental health, and that’s ANOTHER reason why I’m sharing here. It helps me to tell you – and as I’ve been doing over the past several days on Facebook, I’ve been reading messages from people who are also sick, and afraid to tell anyone – because they’re embarrassed and they feel alone.

Let’s stop being embarrassed and let’s keep each other company in a safe way.

Let’s break the stigma! Shout it from the rooftops!

I’ll start:

“I have COVID-19!!! This is Day 7!!! ( I think.)”

Get a pulse oximeter

Ok, back to Day 1. I made my phone calls (people were mostly gracious), and I scheduled a test for later that evening.

My kids, meanwhile, went earlier in the day.

“Mom, ” my son texted me after his test. “They touched my brain with the stick thing.”

“That bad?”

“Not for me, but I think M (his sister) has brain damage from it. Although who can tell with her since she’s already brain-damaged.”

(He’s 11. He’s charming)

The closest place to get tested is a drive-thru testing site in the middle of Israel, nestled in the hills of Modiin.

Back in the day, Modiin was where the Maccabees — the heroes of the Hanukkah story — were hanging out. Now? It’s a suburb with a big strip mall and an industrial center, and some tidy little parks and lovely little homes, and a giant snake of a line of cars with sickies waiting to get sticks shoved up their noses.

This may be the most exciting thing to happen in Modiin since the Maccabees..

Israelis hate waiting in line during the best of times – but throw in a little global pandemic for funsies, and it’s a nightmare.

Luckily, they put up cones and roadblocks so no one could break the line – which I swear I wasn’t planning to do.

After an hour of inching through the line, a guy who looked like he was straight out of a low budget 60s science fiction movie came to the car window, took down my info, and stuck a very long stick down my throat. Then he did the same with each nostril. My son was right. He touched my brain.

That night, things got worse.

Bone crushing fatigue and hip pain. Not since I was pregnant and my hip bones loosened and separated in the third trimester did I feel this.
It is a cold, grinding, nails-on-chalkboard pain. My head began to throb.

My temperature went up a bit – nothing exciting, but enough to make me shake, which made my bones hurt even more. I curled up on the couch, and that’s when the sadness hit like a truck going a thousand light years a minute.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: COVID isn’t a cold, and it isn’t the flu. COVID is a deranged psychopath of a virus that finds your weak points, and just shreds them with claws and fangs, and then sets fire to them, and leaves before you know what hit you. I have friends who can’t stop coughing. I have friends who can’t stop puking. For me, I could barely move.

My chest felt tight, like a rubber band was squeezing it, and everything hurt, but I’m ok.

This is a mild case.

On Day 2 someone told me to get a pulse oximeter. Apparently, they’re all the rage in the US and people are buying them in droves before they even get sick. It’s a little plastic thing that you stick your finger in and it measures your pulse and the oxygen in your blood.

I didn’t think I needed one because even though I felt out of breath by Day 2, I wasn’t coughing.

“Get it,” my friend Rachel wrote on Facebook, and several others chimed in. “Get it!” So I asked my friend to pick up one for me at the pharmacy.

My oxygen level has never been below 98 in my entire life. Even when I was pregnant with the flu back in December 2007, my oxygen was between 98 and 99. I assumed it would be the same.

I stuck my finger in the plastic thing, and I was shocked: 91.

I tried again. 90. I tried a third time. 91.

I waited a few minutes. 92. I tried another finger. 91.

I took a few very deep breaths. 96.

Then 97.

Then back down to 96.

While these numbers aren’t “OMG RUSH TO THE HOSPITAL NOW! numbers” they’re still not good.

And this is ANOTHER reason I’m writing this piece.

Get a pulse oximeter.

Get one right now.

Even if you are healthy, get one.

If you are in quarantine, ask a friend to get one.

Just make it happen.

I didn’t know that you can have no congestion, no coughing, no real respiratory symptoms, and still be in trouble.

Luckily, I haven’t had to go to the hospital, but if those numbers dip below 90, or stay consistently below 95, then I would.

(CAVEAT: Each doctor has a different threshold for what’s dangerous – so check with your doctor or another medical professional before deciding to stay home – Don’t take advice from Google on what are safe oxygen levels. Don’t take advice from your cousin’s friend’s sister’s husband (unless he is in fact a medical professional) on what are safe oxygen levels. And CERTAINLY don’t take advice from some random blogger from Times of Israel with zero medical background on what are safe oxygen levels. ASK AN ACTUAL MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL to help you determine YOUR safe oxygen levels.)

Please.

This could literally save your life.

‘Mom, you look terrible’

By Day 3, my eyes were swollen and puffy. I still couldn’t smell or taste anything, but I liked how certain foods felt in my mouth. Those certain foods are cookies.

“Too much sugar and salt can make you sicker,” a nurse practitioner told me. But cucumbers just weren’t doing it for me, so I drank a lot of ginger tea.

I still didn’t get my results, but my kids did.

Negative.

My daughter called

“Did you get your results, Mom?”

“No baby, I’m sorry.”

“Fiiiiine. So I guess we’re still stuck in quarantine til we know if you’re sick or not. Thanks a lot. Bye.” Click.

(She’s 12. She’s also charming.)

In her defense, I didn’t tell her how sick I was feeling – that every breath hurt, that I could barely keep my eyes open, that just getting to the bathroom took sheer force of will.

In the middle of the night – the beginning of Day 4, I got a text message from my health care provider.

POSITIVE.

It turns out, 5,253 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 that day.

I was one of them.

I was one of the teachers and accountants and site engineers and students and healthcare workers and CEOs and prostitutes and religious leaders and criminals and parents and grandparents and bullies and philanthropists and artists and taxi drivers and who have it. Most of us will recover – and many of us will be just fine.

But some of us will have lingering symptoms for a very long time. Maybe forever.

Some of us will never again smell chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, or the briny scent of the sea on a gusty November morning. Some of us will never again smell zaatar on warm bread, or pink jasmine blooming on a hot summer night, or the way our lover’s neck smells in the morning.

Some of us won’t walk the same, or think the same, or will end up having to have organ transplants or open-heart surgery.

We may test negative for COVID-19, but our bodies will be complete wastelands.

And some of us won’t recover at all.

The results weren’t some great shock or revelation. I had been exposed. I felt miserable. I couldn’t smell or taste. But it still sent this jolt of panic through me.

I texted my kids’ father.

“Sorry dude,” I said. “Another few days of quarantine.”

I let the other people I had seen know.

No one was showing symptoms.

My doctor called in the afternoon:

“Nu? What happened?” she said.

“Well, I guess you see the same results I do.”

She told me how to manage at home – how many more days I’d likely be contagious. She told me what oxygen levels were ok and what weren’t. Drink water, you can take Acamol if you have a fever, get plenty of rest,” she said.

It was reassuring to speak with her – she has this clear, competent voice. She’s cautious, but not hysterical, and I trust her.

Someone from the local council called after that – I was ready for them.

I told them which stores I had been to (Superpharm, the Russian supermarket, ok, fine, MAC), how long I had spent in each place – under 15 min – and that I had worn a mask the entire time.

I told them about the others I had seen. And the ones who needed to quarantine were already in quarantine. The others didn’t have to.

This conversation was also reassuring. It didn’t make ME feel better PERSONALLY, but it felt good knowing that people were doing their job and trying to keep others safe.

I called the kids later that evening on Whatsapp video – they didn’t know I’d tested positive yet, but since I was practically live blogging my symptoms and diagnosis all over the internet, I knew it would only be a matter of time before Yael’s dad or Moshiko’s mom said something, and I would rather they hear it from me first.

I read all the parenting books, but no one prepares you for how to tell your kids that you’re sick with COVID-19.

I flashed back to that cool blue afternoon in early autumn when my mom and dad sat me down and told me she had stage three ovarian cancer. I remember how the room shimmered and stayed that way forever. That room is still there and we are still sitting around the table and it’s November 1999, eternally.

Now: I know that having COVID is not the same as having cancer, but with all the fear around it, and all of the unknowns, it is STILL scary. It is scary to go through it, and it’s even scarier to be the child of someone going through it – to know enough but be separated, and not be able to hug and touch and cry in your mommy’s lap.

Again: I have a mild case. I have zero plans on dying from this. But there are unknowns, and my kids know that, and all of this is scary. It’s scary for me. And it’s even scarier for them.

And I know I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life – and I imagine they will, too.

“Mom, you look terrible,” my daughter said (as I mentioned before, she’s 12).

“No, she doesn’t. Mom is beautiful,” my son, age Oedipus, answered. “Except you do have very black shadows under your eyes, and your eyes are also very red, and your face looks a little white like the Crypt Keeper. But besides that, you’re very beautiful.”

“Did you FINALLY get your results?” my daughter asked.

“Yes baby, I did.” I paused, holding that last space in time between before they knew and after. “I tested positive.”

They stared at me with their cartoon eyes. “What? Are you joking?”

“No honey, I’m not,” I tried to keep my voice even and pitch it the same way my mom did. Soft, low, reassuring. I tried to sound calm and competent like the doctor. And that’s not easy when you’re on Day 4, and you sound like you’ve eaten gravel, and your heart is bouncing between your teeth and your toes.

They hung up.

Five minutes later, they called back.

“Mom, we’re really worried,” my son said in a pinched little voice

I have never wanted to hold them so much in my entire life, to wrap them in my arms and tell them it would be ok.

“I know it’s scary… But I’m not scared,” I lied. “So far it’s a mild case. I’m in touch with the doctor, and everything is under control. I know what signs to look for if I’m getting worse and when to get help, and people are bringing me food, and supplies, and I’m going to be ok.”

And that is the truth: I have my supplies, and my medicine and Day 5 dawned bright and early after 12 pm when I woke up, and my friend Linda left a bag of food wrapped up and then my friend David brought over soup and cake and balloons, and later on that evening, my kids came to the window and left pumpkin soup and waved. I have an ocean of love and support from people all over the world. And the cat stayed curled at my feet.

Friends from the Kibbutz brought medicine.

My boyfriend brought fresh clementines from the orchards outside.

People have texted me every day, and even when I can’t respond right away, I feel so cared for, held in the warm, safe arms of a loving community.

2020 sucked

I stayed awake for New Year’s chatting with a friend.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going into 2021 about a decade older than I was last year.

Mostly, I am grieving hard that I’ve lost that cushion I once had that let me pretend that I would be ok.

Even when I beat this – and you’re damn right I will – this whole year has taken away so much and it’s ok to say screw you, 2020 and screw the silver linings.

Sure, there were moments of grace: Almond lattes (extra hot) every morning, random trips to see nature and history in all their wild glory… my Zoom birthday party connecting nearly 100 little pockets of dear friends around the world… Rabbi Menachem Creditor and I edited When We Turned Within Volumes 1 and 2 — two gorgeous anthologies of poems, prose, and prayers on peoples’ experiences around COVID-19… We had a Zoom election night with people near and far… Timna and her gorgeous masks and our odd trip or two down to The Rabbit Hole (outdoor seating only! Best cocktails around!)… “Leich Cream” on my birthday and the best birthday cake from David and Miri … an eight-hour Zoom Thanksgiving with my most wonderful family… I stuck with therapy which was a life-saver … I started a new book – a collection of Taxi Driver Stories from the Holy Land… I Reconnected with old friends, and made some new ones, too… Helping lead virtual tours around Israel with the Times of Israel Community… We got a little kitten who is part cotton ball and part lizard… had dance parties with my kids…. My boyfriend and I celebrated luminous Hanukkah and a gorgeous Christmas with the family and I ate the best Christmas cookies this Jew ever had.

But these weren’t silver linings.

These were islands of respite and without them, I don’t know if I would have made it.

These islands remind me of those moments after my mom died when I was dazzled and amazed to see who showed up and how they showed up… when friends I hadn’t seen in years came to the shiva and we drank and smoked and laughed our asses off because that was all I had left and all I could do.

Again: there are no silver linings. There are no silver linings in this sinkhole of a year. These are islands in a wild storm that allowed me to survive long enough until the next wave pulled me out to sea.

2020 sucked and it’s ok to own it. It’s ok to rail and rage and howl and grieve.

I didn’t bake bread or learn a new language or practice mindfulness or do yoga in my living room.

I screamed a lot and broke some dishes and got COVID-19.

But I got stronger and I learned how to be more honest with myself and more forgiving of others.

I learned how to stop struggling so hard and just say “I’m so done.”

I went to bed after midnight, and woke up at 3 pm the next day, on Day 6.

But it just all seems like one long day of pain and fear, and Gilmore Girls on in the background. I’m watching old family movies, and looking at photos, and I’m crying. I’m crying a lot. Not just because this is emotionally draining, but one of the side effects of this virus is it changes your brain. And I can feel it. It isn’t just my face that’s aged since getting sick, it’s everything. And I’ll have to follow up with a cardiologist when my quarantine is over, and maybe now a rheumatologist, and God knows what other specialists will need to look at the way my body was ravaged during what I assure you is a mild case of COVID-19

I cannot say this enough. This isn’t a cold, and it isn’t the flu. This isn’t an ALT-right joke, and nooooo, it also isn’t some conspiracy funded by George Soros or the New Israel Fund. This is a very real virus that is doing terrible things – not just to our economy and to our society, but to our beautifully imperfect, holy bodies.

I know the lockdowns are a drag, but trust me: You don’t want your mom to get this. You don’t want your kid to get this. You don’t want your partner to get this. Or your best friend. Or your aunt. Or your cousin. Or your sister. And you REALLY don’t want to get this.

Today is Day 7 and I’m exhausted, and I am shredded, and I just want this to end.

I’m back on the couch watching old academy award clips when Jodie Foster won best actress in Silence of the Lambs. It’s touching to see everyone with their red ribbons to bring awareness to the fight against HIV/AIDS. I remember that Oscar Party vividly in our little house in Venice Beach under the giant Brazilian peppercorn tree – my parents ordered Thai food and my best friend, Aimee slept over and we all dressed up.

I wish I could crawl back in time.

I feel like the littlest gust of wind could break my heart.

But somewhere, deep within a well of memory inside me, I can hear my mother’s voice: This too shall pass.

My oxygen is holding between 94-95. I’m not coughing. And yes, I am managing to sit up and write this. So right now, I guess I’m ok.

And my son called me just before dinner:

“Mom, you getting COVID right now when the vaccine is here and the pandemic is almost over is like in the serial killer movies where they all think the murderer is dead, and everyone relaxes because it’s all over and they turn their backs then the psychopath jumps up and starts stabbing everyone because they were all talking and hugging.”

He is right. I let my guard down. And it got me.

Meanwhile, I am watching my Facebook feed light up with photos of friends and family getting vaccinated — and each time I see another post, I feel warmth flow through me.

We will get through this.

This too shall pass

And then later tonight the landlord brought over some mail for me — including a package from my dear friend Sally Abrams.

Inside was a beautiful card — and this gorgeous necklace that reads in Hebrew “Gam Ze Ya’avor” – This too shall pass. The same words I imagined my mother speaking to me just hours before while I lay on the couch weeping.

This too shall pass.

Sally sent it weeks and weeks ago but the Israeli postal service being that it is, it took until now to arrive.

At exactly the right moment.

The universe is a wacky and wonderful place, isn’t it?

I’ve always believed in miracles, and here’s one for you, all sweet and shiny -this tiny little amulet I’ll wear always around my neck.

And yes, this too shall pass. And I’ll be ok somehow, through this.

Tomorrow is Day 8.

And the best part of all is I just realized that yes: I do actually really, really need deodorant. I smell terrible. And I have to tell you, that feels pretty miraculous right now.

 

Special thanks to David Horovitz, Miriam Herschlag, Anne Gordon, Mimi Borowich Milstein, and Gabe Kahn for helping me edit this.  For real: COVID-brain is a thing, and you should have seen the tpyos.

And also, if you’re going through this, and want to talk, you can find me on Facebook or Instagram or email me at sarah@timesofisrael.com.  I’m also writing little updates on FB and Instagram about going through COVID – the good, the bad, and the selfies – for those who are curious and want to follow along.   

 

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel, She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems. She now lives in Israel with her two kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors and talks to strangers, and writes stories about people. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She also loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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