As Told To Veronica R. Wells
Surviving COVID-19: I Felt Like My Entire Body Was Deteriorating
Theresa Ukpo is a 34-year-old, living in Brooklyn. She works as an in home childcare provider. Earlier this month, she started coughing. Days later, she was lying in bed with a fever, sweating profusely, and unable to breathe. At her age and as a runner, she was surprised that her body was reacting this way. Read what she had to say about her symptoms, trying to tested for the Coronavirus, recovering and why y’all need to stay your asses in the house.
How long ago did you start noticing some type of symptom?
I want to say maybe around March 9. That first week in March, my boss had gone to Denmark and she was already feeling ill. So she took an international trip, came back. When she came back, I was at work that week and all of her symptoms, I suddenly had. So cough, cold, occasional chills. Just because of the nature of the job and being in such close proximity with parents and kids, I thought maybe I caught something from someone. Nope. This was definitely not the case because I have never had a cough or cold that has progressed in this way. Literally, made me feel like my entire body was deteriorating. I’ve never had a fever this bad in my life. I think the closest I’ve ever felt like this was maybe having malaria.
This is worse than malaria?
It’s close enough and especially when you add the breathing component to it. The shortness of breath is the thing that kills me. Just imagine not being able to draw a full breath.
So it started with a cough, how soon did you experience the next symptom?
It started off with a dry cough that was super frustrating. So no immediate shortness of breath. Then I started feeling feverish. So I was like, alright, I’ll take some Dayquil. Fever reducers are really terrible because they don’t help cure anything. They just stop the actual symptoms of what you’re feeling. As soon as the four hours go back, I’m right back to square one where I’m feeling feverish in broad daylight in 60 degree weather. It was ridiculous.
Then things came to a head like Saturday (March 14)/Sunday (March 15) where I was stuck in bed. My coughing was through the roof. Coughing physically hurt my body. And I just felt like I could not draw breath for anything. And you try not read these internet things where it says ‘Hold your breath for ten seconds and if you don’t cough, then you don’t have it.’
Girl, I barely made it to six. And I started freaking out. That weekend, on Sunday, I went outside. I think I went to the bodega and came back up. And I’m on a third floor walk up and it just felt like I was about to pass out by the time I got back into my apartment because I could not breathe. I could not catch my breath.
When did you feel like this is definitely the virus?
Definitely by Saturday when I could not breathe.
Did you try to get a test?
I tried to get a test. So, I went over to my local urgent care. My primary care physician is there as well. Which is very fucked up to be honest, because the very first question that they ask on the phone when I was trying to get an appointment was, ‘Are you trying to come in and get a COVID test?’ I was said no and they were like, ‘Alright, great.’ I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ And she said, ‘Because we don’t have the facilities and we don’t have enough tests available.”
So when I eventually set up the appointment, I asked the receptionist, “What if I did want to set up a test, what would be the protocol?’ She said, you would have to go to a different emergency room.
Because my appointment was set up for the next day, I did go through the process of trying to get a COVID test. And it was this entire run around between Urgent Care telling me to call CDC [Center for Disease Control]. CDC saying, ‘We don’t have any answers for you. Call DOH [Department of Health].” DOH saying, ‘Well, you’re S.O.L. (shit outta luck) right now so you might want to call your local emergency room if you’re really dying.”
No one was trying to do anything.
Were you scared?
It was definitely very scary because I have no preexisting medical conditions. No respiratory issues so just feeling like I couldn’t breathe was my primary motivator to go to the doctor in the first place. And I was incredibly scared because you hear all these stories of the disease progressing and people having pneumonia and then you die. And you’re like, ‘Oh God, what if that happens to me.’ So that was one of the major motivating things as far as me going to the doctor and having them, at the very least do a chest scan and see what the heck was happening. So I was told that I had flu symptoms and it was post nasal drip. Alright, well…so what’s the protocol for that? Rest and hydrate.
Like, okay…that doesn’t really help me right now. But I can’t imagine being a medical professional at this time because there really aren’t any answers. There is no cure. So the basic protocol is stay away from people, hydrate and take care of yourself.
And they just don’t have what they need.
They don’t have what they need.
When you went to the doctor, were there a lot of other people there?
There were a lot of other people who had similar symptoms, none of them as visible as mine, which was super frustrating. Because you can see that I’m wheezing. I’m out of breath. I’m having these visceral symptoms. And you’re telling me that you can’t test me. And you’re telling me that I’m low risk for this because I didn’t travel internationally.
But you told them that you had been in contact with someone who had?
Exactly. So they diagnosed me with post nasal drip.
Y’all really weren’t serious. You just needed to put something on a chart so you could get me out. It felt like walking into an infirmary. And just the general air of uncertainty and fear. I’ve never felt that walking into a doctor’s office. Fear of the unknown. It feels like we’re fighting an unseen enemy, so to speak. It’s literally in the air. So the idea of me having this terrible cough and being asked to cough so someone can check my chest is just…oh goodness.
What did you do to address the shortness of breath? Was there anything you felt like you could do?
All I’ve been doing, really is old African homeopathic remedies: your garlic, your onion, making thyme tea, and literally resting. You have to let the disease take its course on your body. Which is really scary because you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re coughing. And you feel like you cannot breathe. So you cough and it knocks the wind out of you and you can’t take a full breath back. I know my mother is paranoid and just very afraid. She has called me every single day, just to be able to hear me breathe on the phone. And my sister, who has respiratory issues, she said that I sounded terrible.
At what point would you say you started to feel better?
Today is Sunday (March 22), I want to say Thursday, Friday. Wednesday was the worst night, I literally felt like I was circling the drain. My fever was through the roof. It was 104/105. I was just laying here in a pool of my own sweat just ready to go. But it broke and by Thursday morning, I didn’t have a fever and I wasn’t feeling feverish but I was achy just because my body had been in such disarray. By Friday, I felt that the cough had subsided a little bit, enough for me to breathe. Where I could take a deep, diaphragm breath and wouldn’t cough.
So from the March 9th to Wednesday, which was the 18th.
Umm hmm. Today’s the 22nd of March. I’ve been feeling terrible since the 9th of March.
Can you recall the first time you heard discussions about coronavirus? How seriously did you take it?
Initially, I didn’t take it as seriously, truly. Because we’ve been through multiple things. We went through SARS, we went through Ebola. Multiple things. So you’re not thinking it’s as close as what it is until there’s progressive shut down and you hear about the death tolls and you hear about the cases in New York City. And then I think I started physically freaking out when I had the dry cough. And you look through the symptom chart and I’m going through every single thing on that symptom chart. That’s when it became very real for me.
Do you have roommates?
How has that been working out?
So I live in a three bedroom. Everyone has been quarantined in their own room. So as for general public spaces, I have not been outside or socializing. As far as bathroom and kitchen use, it’s been a lot of bleaching and disinfecting after use. It just smells like bleach. But we’ve been able to manage distancing ourselves and not creating areas for infection or anything of that sort. So far, so good. It’s been fine.
How have you been cooking and eating?
So my appetite has been shot. I have not had much of an appetite. Thursday/Friday was the first time I was able to eat and hold something down. Prior to that, I was eating grapes and gelato. That was it. That was all I could physically manage to old down and not hurl back up.
So you did have an upset stomach?
Interesting because people have been saying upset stomach is not a part of it.
I didn’t have a headache but I definitely had a fever. Feeling very feverish. The shortness of breath, dry cough and then just my appetite was completely gone. But not just I don’t feel like eating. I physically can’t hold down food. I was throwing up. And obviously if you’re coughing so violently, you’re throwing up as well.
How did this affect your work—because you were taking care of a child. How did that go?
I mean, I have to…It’s so weird because I feel like my employers are not taking this as seriously. It didn’t become serious until my fever spiked. The cough wasn’t terrible for them. I guess because the mom was already sick and she was already coughing. And she thought, well if I’m coughing and you’re coughing we probably have the same thing, not factoring in that it could actually be the coronavirus and not just a simple cold you brought back from Denmark.
Her symptoms didn’t progress like mine did. But she also had a longer period where she was home and not commuting back and forth and coming in contact with anybody else but her family.
It seems like they didn’t take this seriously up until the point where I said, I wasn’t able to move because I had such a terrible fever. So I was the one who nominated and said, ‘I can’t come into work. I need to stay home. I physically cannot even do this.’ But more than anything, I would be so disappointed in myself if I gave that little child anything.
Yes! And I’m surprised they weren’t thinking like that.
No because they need the help…but not really if you think about it because the mom is able to work from home and the dad doesn’t really do much of anything, in that he doesn’t have a day job. He’s perfectly capable of taking care of kiddo but he doesn’t do that. That’s a whole other story.
So they’re both at home?
And they still wanted you to come.
Oh absolutely. I’m supposed to have a check in conversation today to see how I’m feeling about coming in this week.
That’s so interesting that they would potentially risk exposing their child to that?
Just for having the convenience of having someone take care of your child. Especially now that we’re quarantined, what am I going to do? I’m not taking him to the playground. I’m not going to risk taking him outside until I know it’s actually safe.
How do you know when you’re no longer contagious?
Exactly. I don’t know that I’m no longer contagious. There are people out here who aren’t exhibiting symptoms who have been exposed to this. And I’m coughing and physically trying to recover from coughing. This could be laying dormant for who knows how long.
I’m really dreading the idea of getting up, getting on a train and potentially having to go to work and potentially feeling winded running after a 15-month old.
What would you tell people in terms of staying inside, social distancing and addressing a lot of rumors out there? Initially, there was the notion that Black people don’t get it. And then it was Black people do get it but our symptoms aren’t as severe as White people.
I think that’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. Again, we are fighting an unseen enemy in the air. It is viral. Obviously, you take as many precautions as possible to keep yourself safe but if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it and you just have to get yourself through it.
I think what’s irresponsible is sitting out here going to hookah spots and day parties and just being in close proximity with people. And then spread it to someone who doesn’t have the constitution to deal with it. It’s really unnerving feeling this incapacitated. Just a cough is rendering me winded. Right now, I’m trying to get my lungs back to where everyday tasks don’t make me feel so out of breath, so winded. I went outside yesterday to go for a walk, get some air in these lungs. A noble effort but it was a lot. I’ve never felt like that.
This is not the type of winded you feel when you run and recover. This is physically my body is not able to do this right now. I think people just need to take this as serious as possible as far as keeping away from people. I know this is incredibly difficult. I know something that was super helpful was having a virtual happy hour with some friends. That definitely made me feel less alone. Because I know we crave human contact. Facetime your friends, do what you need to but by all means, stay inside.
What are some other things you did to feel connected to people?
I’ve just been on the phone as much as I can with people that I haven’t caught up with in a really long time. Video-chatting. Getting lost in the abyss that is YouTube. You plan dates with people and it doesn’t seem half as bad. I’ve been talking to my cousin in the UK and that’s been nice. So I get to hear what life is like across the pond.
What are you doing for lung recovery?
If you look up breathing exercises on YouTube, there are tutorials there on deep diaphragm breathing. The first couple of days, I felt like I had to have a stool in the shower, just to be able to sit and take a bath.
Is there anything else you want to add?
No, just stay your ass in the house. Stay your gotdamn ass in the house. I’m thankful I am here. It’s not worse. It’s not pneumonia. It hasn’t progressed and my lungs haven’t been eviscerated but I just know that it’s going to be an uphill climb just getting back to where my lungs are typically. I’m a runner. This makes no sense for my body.
I remember a point last week, I couldn’t even cry because I couldn’t take a full breath. So imagine being stuck in your body that is not working.
I signed up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May which I’m not going to run.
Well, they might cancel it…
Exactly. They canceled The United Half. So they will likely cancel this Brooklyn Half as well. Even if they didn’t, I cannot imagine running that with the way I’m feeling right now.
If you have the opportunity to quarantine and stay home, take it in stride because the less people that are outside, the less people are within 3-4 feet of each other, it makes a very big difference.
You know when you’re in the pit of your own despair, you start to think back to where this might have started, where exactly could I have gotten this? And honestly, it could have been anywhere. It could have anywhere from my house in Brooklyn and getting to Jersey.
Breathing next to people on a crowded Subway train looks very, very different now in the age of Corona. Because all I’m seeing now is liquid spores in the air of this wonderful virus that keeps on giving.