The recovered: How it feels to be alive on the other side of the pandemic

Karen Heller

THE WASHINGTON POST – The first nine days were bearable. Mild cough, scratchy throat, lower back pain. Jill Baren, a triathlete, ascribed the last symptom to overdoing exercise.

The next eight days? Horrific. Severe fevers, chest pain, cramps, fatigue and dehydration that sent her to the hospital.

“The way people looked at me in the ER, the look in people’s eyes, I’ve never seen that,” said Baren, 59, of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “They looked at me like I could die.”

These people knew her well. Baren, president of the American Board of Emergency Medicine, was lying in the Philadelphia emergency room where she works as a physician.

Last week, fully recovered, Baren returned to caring for patients. “It feels empowering to have been through this,” she said. “I’m in a position to help in a way that other people are not. I don’t have to live in dire fear if a droplet goes through my protective clothing,” she said.

“I can reassure people, tell my story.”

Baren is among the recovereds, the almost 44,000 in the United States (US) who survived covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Because of faulty results and a lack of testing, their true number is believed to be substantially greater and will continue to mount for months to come. As of Tuesday, more than 600,000 Americans had contracted the virus.

How does it feel to be among them? To be alive on the other side of the pandemic, the crush of anxiety? Lucky.

Madeline Long: ‘I was terrified. For three days, I didn’t think I would wake up’. PHOTO: MADELINE LONG

Lucky and weepy and invincible and relieved and tired and motivated and perplexed and altered.

There is so much information and, then again, not enough as to how to proceed. People who have recovered, even those who are still weak, share an urgency to help, inform and donate, especially plasma, anything for research. Some people report feeling like superheroes, ‘virus Avengers’. Others sense being stigmatised, that the healthy will avoid them for fear of risking infection.

March was a fevered blur for Carrie Smith, 44, a nurse in St Louis assigned to a hospital’s cardiac floor. On her worst days recovering at home, she slept 20 hours a day. Half of the respiratory therapists at her hospital went out sick, and a fifth of the nursing staff.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I had written out my living will. I had prepared as if I was going to die.” This is what solace sounds like on the other side of the tunnel. “It’s been a relief.

Everyone in my house got it, and nobody died from it.”

Madeline Long, 56, of Bowie, Maryland, is a breast cancer survivor and CEO of a company that produces devices for digital mammography. “I was terrified. For three days, I didn’t think I would wake up. I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was the new normal,” she said. “It was worse than anything I went through with breast cancer.” Long spent five days in the hospital. How does she feel now? Silence, then sobbing. “I guess I’ve answered your question.”

The pandemic, which arrived so fast and with such force, left confusion for those who now view the virus in their rearview mirror.

Guidelines for recovery vary. It can be a challenge to obtain clearance status from local government, to even get through to an overtaxed health department. How cleared is cleared? Do you tell everyone or keep it to yourself? What is the protocol for healthcare workers who have had the virus, especially with patients who haven’t?

“Now, I can go help people. I can work on the front line,” Smith said. “Do they want me to tell people, to reassure them? If I was a patient, and my nurse had it, I would want to know that she was really sick and now she is OK.”

Diana Berrent, 45, a photographer in Port Washington, New York, has become a public face of the recovered, after fighting to get tested. Last month, she launched the Facebook group Survivor Corps, which has attracted more than 31,000 members. “I would be able to use that superpower at the end of this to go help others,” she said.

Berrent took to television and created a video diary chronicled in the New York Post. “If I’m going to be the canary in the coal mine, I’m going to be the loudest canary in the coal mine,” she said. “I feel like I have a sense of purpose.

“We can hold the hands of the dying. We can donate plasma,” said Berrent, who participated in two studies and volunteered to participate in four more. “There’s no better therapy for survivors than using the superpowers your bodies created to save lives.”

Berrent acknowledged, “I wouldn’t say I am definitely immune. We shouldn’t be assuming anything. I still haven’t gone to the supermarket. I’m still cautious. I’m taking my time.

People can’t be careful enough.” Experts said there is no scientific assurance that someone recovered from the coronavirus is completely immune – or certainty as to how long any immunity might last.

Cases vary radically. On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump met with people who recovered; their cases ranged from life-threatening to slight, the duration from a few days to a month. People relapsed with symptoms, and South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports citizens testing positive after being cured. The US CDC and many state health departments suggest that covid-19 recoverees wait 72 hours after fever and respiratory issues end before returning to work. That may be too short and too vague, given relapses and the infected who never exhibit major symptoms, Berrent argued, “It’s going to be the death of us.”

But gratitude is a constant. People living alone are grateful they didn’t infect family, didn’t have to care for toddlers, and were free to sleep and sweat in bed for hours. Parents of young children assume their children were infected yet are grateful that they appear asymptomatic. Young adults are grateful their cases are milder. Those with severe cases are especially grateful that they have joined the recovered.

Atlanta paediatric emergency physician Stephanie Cohen, 45, feels “this sense of immunity,” not only from the virus but from anxiety. “I don’t have to worry.” Cohen, a mother of five, wants to donate plasma, participate in studies and deliver food to the elderly in Albany, Georgia, where 30 people have died from the coronavirus.

“I can put it to best use in the hospital. If somebody with the virus needs to be intubated, I can do this.” One of Cohen’s colleagues told her, “You’ve taken fear and anxiety, and turned it into truth and reality.”

Yet anxiety persists. “I feel lucky. I’m young and had a mild case. But I feel like a pariah. Our neighbours run away from me,” said Rebecca, 21, a college junior from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. She fears reprisals for her mother, who has yet to get sick and works in healthcare. Philip Kruse, 64, of Seattle, a former employee for a residential tree service who’s now on disability, had a mild case – half his family got the virus – but kept it “totally undercover that I was sick because I live in public housing, and you know what a rumour mill that can be.”

Still, there is a gift in being among the first people to get it – and to get over it. Samantha Brownell, 51, of South Orange, New Jersey, tested negative, but two physicians are confident she had covid-19.She was sick for 12 days. “I’ve never experienced such body pains. I could barely walk from the bed to the toilet,” she said. “I’m so frustrated. I’m in a state of shock,” Brownell said of the negative test. “It doesn’t make any sense of whatsoever. Kind of makes you feel like you’re going crazy. She plans to get retested, and proceed as though she had the virus.

Richard Phillips, 49, is confounded by the lack of information of what happens after having the coronavirus. How is he supposed to proceed? How can he help?

“It’s kind of maddening. Some people could still be shedding the virus. I’m trying in vain to find a study, people doing plasma treatments,” said Phillips, a business and nonprofit consultant in Philadelphia.

Roles and responsibilities, post-virus, are still being defined. Kruse worries about his economic situation. He’s donated plasma five times, getting paid USD200 a visit.

Long is concerned that black Americans have been infected and are dying at much higher rates than the general population.

“There’s such large numbers in our communities,” said Long, who offered to care for the four-year-old son of a friend of a friend in Washington, DC, who appears to have the virus.

“Where else is that child going to go? Everyone is fearful that the child has been exposed to his mom,” she said. “What happens to the single mom who gets sick? What happens to her children?”