Irishwoman in New York: I didn’t fear getting Covid-19 but I should have

Dubliner Yvonne Cassidy was fit and healthy, but says coronavirus didn’t seem to care

I started to write this piece before, a few weeks ago. I was then writing about what it was like to be quarantined in New York, what the city felt like – the streets silent except for the sound of the sirens at night, the anxiety of grocery shopping, the tears that came at the sight of those first treatment tents in Central Park. I wrote a list of my fears, little and big things: my parents being cocooned in Ireland, my wife still going to work and putting herself at risk, my tenant not being able to pay her rent and my local Starbucks closing down (which it did, weeks ago).

Interestingly, looking back, I didn’t list the fear of getting this disease. I look back at mid-March me, running in the park every morning, working more hours remotely in my non-profit job than I used to in the office, and I wonder if I was afraid of getting it? I don’t think I was. Even when my wife started showing symptoms, even when she tested positive, I was afraid for her. I don’t think it occurred to me to be afraid for myself.

That first night – just over two weeks ago now – was when I first began to feel it: the fear. My wife was doing better, at the tail end of what in retrospect were thankfully pretty mild symptoms. We were watching the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix. I'd seen it before, she hadn't. And then I felt it: something in my chest, something that made it hard to take a full breath while even just sitting there on the couch. I'd heard of the respiratory symptoms; Chris Cuomo, brother of New York governor Andrew and an anchor on CNN, had contracted it and was broadcasting from his basement, his face shiny and red. "This thing wants your lungs," he had said just earlier that night. "You have to fight it."

That night I lie on the bed restless, and the next morning I go to our local walk-in medical clinic where my wife had been tested. I feel tired, achy – I think I do, or is that only my imagination? Maybe I’m just tired from working a lot, running a lot, taking care of my wife or the stress of the whole situation. The young doctor who examines me concurs that for a runner who was used to running up steps and inclines, to experience a shortness of breath sitting on the couch likely is the onset of “the virus”. I remember her calling it that – not Covid-19 – and as she rammed a swab higher up my nose than I thought a swab could go, she casually mentions I should expect a rough ride. I left with a feeling of unease and a prescription for an inhaler.

Later, I feel worse with more aches and my breathing a little more laboured, but still no fever. The next morning, the clinic calls to say I've tested negative, cause surely for celebration. But a question mark hovers over my test, which may have been compromised by antibiotic ointment in my nose and then there's the fact that I'm feeling worse. My GP, who had begun to text me daily, is convinced I've Covid-19 but still, despite everything, I feel like a fraud – someone with a cold, maybe a bit of bronchitis using up the already overstretched New York City health service. I should just get on with it, I should power through like I always power through. This is where my thoughts go, despite my body telling me something different. That night my fever spikes for the first time, at more than101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 Celsius degrees).

Most afternoons the only thing I am capable of is looking out the window

For the next seven days my fever bounces between 101 and 102 (38.9 degrees). I’ve never had a fever for that long and didn’t fully appreciated the toll it takes on your body and mind. Whatever semblance of peace I get during the day, I dread the nights – sleepless and sweating, soaking through not only my pyjamas but the bedsheets as well. Some nights, I scoot down the other end of the bed to find a spot that isn’t already soaking wet. Some nights, I try to read, to listen to a meditation but the fever had a way of taking things I’ve seen and heard, and weaving them into some delirious, waking nightmare.

Before I'd been sick, one of my daily respites was re-watching old episodes of Cagney and Lacey, but now the theme tune repeats in my head on a loop, making me dazed and sicker. I think old Miss Marple episodes might be easier going, but the music had the same effect. Most afternoons the only thing I am capable of is looking out the window and watching the light change on the buildings outside.

On the fourth day my doctor put me on medicine for pneumonia and malaria, the “Trump cocktail” they call it over here, everything politicised as always. It’s hard on my already depleted system. At my doctor’s insistence, I drag myself back to the medical clinic for a new test – even though he’s convinced I have Covid-19 he says it’s important to have the result and I try not to think about why that might be. The three-block walk to the clinic feels like three miles (5km) and when I get there, they tell me I can’t be retested, I should assume I have it and there’s nothing they can do anyway. I can’t even see a doctor. I burst into tears outside on the street.

My breathing is getting worse. Of all the symptoms that's the one that terrifies me. Broadcaster Chris Cuomo is still fighting his battle every night in front of us and his words "it's after your lungs" circle my mind in a loop. I'm fanatical about doing breathing exercises from a Facebook link that a friend sends me, repeating them twice, three times a day.

We try and buy a pulse oximeter, a small device to measure oxygen levels, online but there are none to be bought so my wife goes to a friend’s house to borrow hers. It seems a little erratic but my reading is consistent at 94, whereas my wife’s goes up to 98. I text my doctor who has asked for this update. His response startles me: if mine drops below 94, I must go to the emergency department. Before I can text back, he texts again and says that he is with me, and sends a hug emoji. He is not someone who I would expect to use emojis. It’s late, 11.30pm or so, with only the sounds of the sirens outside. The thought of going there – and alone – is terrifying. I see in my wife’s face that it terrifies her too. She reaches for my hand and we sit there for a while, before trying to get some sleep.

The next morning, I don’t want to do the oxygen level test, some part of me resorting to old child-like thinking that if I don’t know, it isn’t happening. When I do the oxygen test reading it’s 95, a percentage point more than last night. It fluctuates between 95 and 96, which is not amazing, but better. It’s better enough to keep me out of hospital.

The thing I learn about this virus is that even as it gives you hope, it can turn around and mug you of it, just as fast. After that day of such relief that night my temperature spikes higher than ever. I throw up violently before going to bed, shake uncontrollably under the covers before pulling them back drenched with sweat. It’s a week since my first symptoms, but it feels like so much longer – with hardly any sleep, each day and night are ground out a minute, a half hour, at a time.

And then, just like that, my fever breaks. I wake up and realise that I’ve slept. The sheets were dry. The thermometer confirms what my body feels, and the joy and relief is amazing. Sure, I feel shaky, tired, weak but the war is over, I’ve won the battle. I’m sure I have.

But Covid-19 is cunning, unpredictable and it’s not done with me yet. That day and later that night without the feelings of the fever to distract me, I focus more on my breathing. Doing my breathing exercises, I find suddenly that I can’t breathe in without making a terrible rasping sound. My wife urges me to do it without that noise, but I can’t. The feeling in my chest is different, a kind of gurgling in my back and in what I can only describe as my lower lungs as if the virus is more deeply established in my body than before.

Once again, I lie awake all night, getting up eventually to listen to Brendan O’Connor’s RTÉ’s Radio 1 show in Ireland and watch the sunrise from our window. When I text my doctor, he wants yet another trip to the medical clinic, this time for a chest X-ray.

Maybe I was arrogant thinking the virus wouldn't affect me as badly as it did

We go together, my wife and I, armed with a text from my doctor and an additional list of blood tests he requires. My wife is told to wait outside the building and so alone I see a different doctor who tells me what I am describing is “classic Covid”, that she’s seen some 500 patients who had all had pretty much this same experience. She’s dismissive when I ask for the chest X-ray, reiterating how resources are slim and that my breathing sounds fine. I almost acquiesce and go home with that feeling of wasting valuable time coming over me once again. But this is what my doctor wants and besides, these past 10 days have put me in tune with my body in new ways and I know something is happening. I take a breath, embrace my burgeoning inner New Yorker and push for what I want.

Before I’ve a chance to put my clothes back on, the doctor reads the results: “That’s some case of pneumonia you got there”. Her voice is surprised, but unapologetic, like she’s looking at an interesting specimen, not part of my body. The pneumonia is in my left lung – exactly where I felt it, right where I knew it was. She takes my blood and lets my wife into the room where she gives us a lot of information. Once again, she references the 500 Covid cases she’s seen, but apparently only a handful had this diagnosis.

The reassurance I’m offered is that the pneumonia doesn’t look like the “super bad kind” that brings you to hospital, and that because I’m already being treated for pneumonia, then I’m probably not going to need any more treatment, just now. On the walk home I hold my wife’s hand, too tired to speak. Outside the apartment, I start to cry and she hugs me – something we’ve been afraid to do since she first got sick – for the first time in weeks.

That was five days ago and I feel much better. To be able to sit at this computer and write these words is testament to that. I’ve been sleeping a lot during the day – I’m still finding it hard to sleep through the night – and the gurgling feeling in my chest, while still there is better than it was. My blood tests showed severe inflammation from the Covid-19 and the pneumonia, and my doctor still checks in on me via text every other day now. My blood oxygen is up to 97. Yesterday, my wife and I walked to the end of our empty block – fully masked, of course – and although it wiped me out, the feeling of the air on my face and the sight of the blossoms made it worth the effort.

As I write this, I wonder why I want to share my Covid-19 story. So many people have had this far worse than me, I’ve so much to be grateful for. Do I want to write it to get sympathy or to scare people? Do I want to be able to say this happened to me too?

Maybe part of me is writing this is for sympathy, but I think most of me is writing this for the reason I write anything – to share my experience, my truth. What I experienced did not line up with my expectation of this thing, not by a long way. Maybe I was arrogant thinking it wouldn’t affect me as badly as it did, maybe despite complying with the social distancing rules, I thought I was doing it for others and that I didn’t need to worry. But I should have been worried and - though I hate to say it – I think we all need to be, if not worried, then certainly mindful.

As we get into our second month of this enforced isolation it's so easy to get bored, frustrated, depressed even, and wonder when this will all be over. When can life get back to "normal"? I'm sure I was feeling that even before I got sick. But my glimpse into Covid-19 has changed that completely. Being sick – being that sick – somehow stops you being able to think of anything else beyond that moment, your mind can only be filled with the feeling in your body and if you're lucky, the hope of getting better. At the lowest most difficult moments, I forced myself to pull up images of beauty of places I love, where I long to visit again: the drive between Ballingeary and Bantry, Gougane Barra, the Pacific Ocean, the beach in Montauk.

Between lockdown restrictions and travel bans I’ve no idea when I’ll visit any of those places again, but that seems less important now. Self-isolating, containing, takes on a new depth of meaning than it did before. I will get to those places when the world is ready, when we all are ready. And my job for now – like all of our jobs – is to make the best of it while we wait.

Looking in the mirror, I think I look different. Not just my hair that needs a cut and my eyebrows that are disappearing without their monthly dye, but the shape of me. I look a little bit diminished, my shoulders narrower somehow. After a couple of hours on work email yesterday my wife comes out to find me on the couch and says I look like a “little ghost”.

But outside, in the park, the leaves are yellowish green. The trees on our block are in full bloom. And New York, despite being battered and bruised, is still New York. Ben & Jerry’s still delivers ice cream sundaes and last night at 7pm – in addition to banging our pots and pans – we sang New York, New York, waving at unknown neighbours across the street.

Kitted out in her N95 mask and gloves, my wife forages for provisions every other day. We take turns again now, disinfecting everything before going to bed. When she looks at me, that look she had last week – the fear – is receding, but the tenderness is still there, even more now, for each other than in the days before all of this.

And I’m reminded then that in the middle of all this there so much to be grateful for, so much more than I realised before. I can only hope that this sense of gratitude remains, that gratitude helps us to sustain our patience, as we face into whatever it is that still lies ahead.

Yvonne Cassidy is the published author of four novels including The Other Boy and I'm Right Here. She lives in New York City with her wife Danielle.