Back in April, I wrote a piece for the West Side Spirit about my bout with COVID-19. I had tested positive and was hospitalized the second to last week of March when the infections were taking off in New York, and right before the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketed to the dangerous highs of early April. I had first denied that the virus would get me until I passed out on my kitchen floor and ended up in the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital.
I was diagnosed with a moderate case, kept in a COVID unit with oxygen and sent home on my own two days later. After the required seven-day quarantine without symptoms, I felt home free and went about my business. Like everyone else, I watched with horror as the United States surpassed all other countries in infections and accounted for 25% of the world’s deaths. The dearth of leadership on the federal level, the lies, misrepresentations and utter incompetence has rankled me to no end. They don’t understand the dangers of this virus.
So why am I recounting this? Fast forward to the beginning of June. I am over two months in recovery and begin feeling some of the lethargy, lack of appetite, shortness of breath I had previously experienced. It was the time of the George Floyd killing, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests in response. I felt well enough to join one of the marches and was able to trek from Columbus Circle to Washington Square Park, shouting “No Justice No Peace” like the younger throngs of protestors. It was not always easy to keep up with the Millennials, Gen Xers and Zers (the boomers seemed absent from the protests), but I managed.
The next day, however, I felt as if I was “hit by a truck.” I called the doctor and decided to get checked out at an urgent care site. Could the virus have returned? The chest x-ray at urgent care was inconclusive and the doctor suggested I go over to an emergency room and have my chest scanned. I headed over to the Mount Sinai emergency room for what I thought would be a short visit.
So began my journey with a second leg of a COVID-related illness. After twenty-four sleepless hours in the ER and a plethora of scans and tests, I was re-hospitalized for eight days, put on a steroid and anti-coagulant, given oxygen and monitored closely. My body seemed to be playing tricks on me.
The conventional wisdom is that once you’ve survived COVID-19, you have a certain level of immunity, no longer carry the virus, have a host of antibodies and are not contagious - i.e, “You are in the clear.”
I have since discovered otherwise. The slew of doctors at Mount Sinai (attendees, residents, cardiologists, pulmonary specialists and infectious disease experts) had different theories. I tested negative for the virus but had troubling inflammatory markers. The pulmonologist suggested that there was additional lung damage causing the shortness of breath, but he didn’t hear any abnormalities when listening to my chest.
Dr. Noreen Singh was one of the very many caring, competent doctors who tracked my progress. She explained in detail the range of inflammatory markers from “crps” to “d-dimers” which tracked everything from kidney function to the dangers of blood clotting. She theorized that there were many tiny blood clots that did not show up on the imaging and were causing the shortness of breath. Much to my chagrin, and not by choice, I was learning things about my body as I tried to find answers as to why the effects of COVID had returned.
The doctors had seen a few COVID returnees after a month or so of recovery but had not treated anyone in my situation who was three months post-infection and symptomatic again. The consensus was that I had a case of what is called a “post COVID inflammatory syndrome.” I call it COVID redux.
The hospital stay where they administered the steroid treatment and monitored my organ markers was more debilitating than my initial run-in with COVID-19 in March. They kept a keen eye on my level of blood oxygen. I never knew what an oximeter was before now but became fixated on the number so I wouldn’t have to go home with oxygen. I agreed to participate in a three week follow-up study by the Sinai Pulmonary Institute which is tracking, through an app, my blood oxygen level twice daily. I’m happy to say that my numbers have improved and that I am home recovering and getting my strength back. However, the doctors said the recovery could be slow and last until the fall.
I can’t help but think that despite how inundated we are with coronavirus news, there is value in letting others know the ongoing dangers and unknown vicissitudes of this disease. This experience has deepened my respect for the ongoing devastation of the virus. It is powerful and unpredictable. For all the depth and expertise of the Sinai staff, they are figuring out the virus as they go along. I heard several times when looking for an explanation, “We just don’t know.”
The relapse – even with a negative test and apparent non-contagion – can be potentially more serious than the initial infection. There has been a lot of speculation about a second wave in the fall. Is any attention being paid to “returnees?” The virus, (and its aftermath) continue to take very funny bounces. It knows how to throw a serious curve ball.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.
This experience has deepened my respect for the ongoing devastation of the virus. It is powerful and unpredictable. For all the depth and expertise of the Mount Sinai staff, they are figuring out the virus as they go along.