Ghenwa Yehia, Content Development Specialist at HBKU Press, took all the precautions to safeguard herself and her family from contracting SARS-CoV-2, and yet she and her family tested positive. Here she recounts her emotional journey with COVID-19.
My journey with COVID-19 started on 1 July, 2020 – ironically the day the first of many restrictions were being lifted around the country. I woke up, as I had every day before in quarantine, and got in an hour-long workout before I started my ‘day at the office’ from home as usual. When I sat down for breakfast, I noticed what I can only describe as a vague tickle in the back of my throat. I shrugged it off and continued with my day.
By lunch, I knew I felt off. I secretly took my temperature and saw that it was raised, but not a fever by any means. I attributed my creeping concern to paranoia and fear of this next stage of life during a global pandemic. My anxiety had been all over the place during the past few months and this new stage wouldn’t be any different. I was torn between the desire to live and enjoy life outdoors once again and the desire to keep my family safe from harm.
“In three months, you’ve been out what: three, four times?” my husband said when I told him about my body temperature.
“It’s probably just in your head. You’re nervous about things opening up again. Let’s just take it one day at a time. Like always,” he said.
Made sense. A little later, a friend messaged me and we talked about our shared concern of things getting back to normal – whatever that meant. And I confided in him that I felt… off.
“Imagine you got COVID-19 now!” he joked, adding, “If you die, I’m taking your standing desk.”
He was right. It was absolutely preposterous.
Fast forward to that evening when the real nightmare began.
My temperature soared. Every joint in my body throbbed with a dull ache and every nerve screamed in agony at the slightest stimulation. My body felt battered. I spent the rest of the day covered in layers of blankets, sweating through the mounds of cloth but shivering all the same. My throat felt raw and parched, as if the water I drank to satiate my unquenchable thirst was actually sand, scratching down my pharynx and leaving it raw and hard to swallow. My chest felt heavy. It was impossible to take a deep breath with an invisible weight pressing down on the very center of my sternum. My head pounded, and my eyes hurt. I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep marred by panic, anxiety, and very vivid nightmares.
At some point, when the pain medication had dulled my symptoms enough so that I could get out of bed, I went to the hospital to get tested for COVID-19. My Ehteraz turned grey and there was nothing more to do than manage the symptoms and hope for the best.
In less than 24 hours, my worst fears were confirmed.
My husband, wearing his PPE, stood in the doorway outside of our bedroom where I had been isolating. He was speaking to the representative from the hospital who had just confirmed that I had tested positive for COVID-19. His words floated around me. I remember his wide eyes looking at me with fear; his stance suggesting that he was about to break the nonexistent barrier at the doorway and rush in to hug me were it not for the invisible hands that held him back.
Isolation and guilt
To be honest, in those first surreal moments, I felt a wave of instant relief. I was now facing the invisible monster I had been hiding away from for 3 months head on.
After months of living in constant fear of this mysterious virus that had swept the globe, living a life akin to a hermit and adhering almost fanatically to all of the rules and precautions as if following them would somehow guarantee safety, my biggest fear had been realized.
But, as with any wave that pulls back after it first crashes onto the shore, my relief quickly ebbed away leaving only the ravages of guilt and shame.
I played by all the rules. How did this happen?
I went to a hypermarket two weeks ago. Was I careful enough?
I stopped by the office last week. What did I touch?
My children… did I infect them?
Did I disinfect the groceries enough? Did I touch the button in the elevator?
Did I do enough to prevent this?
Did I… did I… did I… ?
Within two days, I was in an isolation facility. On the third, I found out that my nine-year-old son had also tested positive, so he came to stay with me as well.
Coupled with the physical symptoms, the emotional guilt was crippling.
Whereas I was weak with fatigue, unable to shake the nausea, fever, and chills, my son was a ball of energy, bouncing off the walls of our shared confined space. I would often lock myself away in the washroom and cry. It was bad enough that he had been robbed of his final months at school, unable to see his classmates and friends, but now because of me – his own mother – he was locked away in this room for two weeks as well. I tried my best to pull it together to make things a little easier on him.
Time passes slowly when you’re alone with your thoughts. I’m thankful my son and I had each other, but it was not enough to quiet a constant stream of consciousness playing on loop inside my head.
When people called, though with good intentions and concern, their well-meaning questions sometimes hurt the most: “But how did YOU get COVID-19? You’re so careful! What did you do wrong?”
That’s what I’ve been agonizing over for the past week, thank you very much for reminding me.
Silencing my thoughts, I would put on a cheerful voice and give a standard polite answer so as not to inconvenience anyone else with worry. I downplayed my symptoms as well, as if my feeling better would make me less culpable.
“I’m fine,” I would say pulling the phone away from my face to mask my labored breathes. “Just a tough bout of the flu – nothing I can’t get over in time.”
I was lying.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never been so scared in my life. The nights were the worst. The very tangible fear you experience when you are conscious and struggling to breathe, awake but afraid to fall asleep, is surreal. A million thoughts rush through your head when all you really need to do is catch your breath.
I used a box breathing technique to get myself to sleep every night.
Inhale…1…2…3…4. Hold it…1…2…3…4. Exhale…1…2…3…4. Hold it…1…2…3…4. Repeat.
Even when I could fall asleep, on most nights I would wake up a few hours later, seized by a fit of coughing only to go through the process once again.
A week into my isolation, I woke up to a frantic message from my husband. My seven-year-old son had spiked a fever overnight. They had both previously tested negative, so I was shocked. He was instructed to get tested again. My son’s fever went away on its own within a few hours and my husband showed absolutely no symptoms.
They both tested positive.
Knowing me well, my husband put an end to my irrational shame and guilt before I could spin out of control again.
“Ghenwa, that’s enough,” he said when I apologized, crying into the phone. “It is the will of God. We will get through this. Alhamdulilah we are safe, and we are receiving the best care and have access to everything we need to get better.”
It must be said that on this journey, my entire family cannot express how thankful we are for the care, guidance, and understanding we have received from so many people. From the medical staff who coordinated our care, to the helpful staff at the isolation facilities, to our respective colleagues, family and friends who have, in their own ways, lifted any burdens from our shoulders during this difficult time. We are eternally grateful.
By the time my two weeks of isolation was over, I felt much better. I didn’t have as much trouble breathing, and my energy levels went up. I was sent home with my son and was instructed to quarantine for another two weeks. But what next?
There is still so much we don’t know about this disease. It’s only been around for months, not years. We don’t really know about any of the long-term health effects. We don’t know how it may present itself later in life for those who have been exposed.
What we don’t know far outweighs everything we do know and yet all over social media I see people going back to “normal” and living their lives so cavalierly without caution and consideration as if the past six months have been for nothing. As if people have suffered and people have died for nothing.
I can’t help but think back to my last night in isolation. As I placed my packed bags at the door, relieved to be going home the next day, the muted flash of red and blue lights in the window caught my eye. An ambulance was pulling up to the isolation facility. I would be going home tomorrow but someone else wasn’t so lucky.
I did everything right and I still got COVID-19. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Because the knowledge that I had knowingly spread the virus if I wasn’t as cautious as I was would have been my undoing. And even though that’s not the case, the guilt of that idea still almost did. Can you have that on your conscience?
We started out this journey together united under slogans like #YourSafetyIsMySafety and #StaySafeStayHome. And while I’m all for moving forward cautiously and paving a way to live a life full of joy and meaningful connections, we should all continue to do our part to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus unnecessarily. You don’t know how it will affect you and you don’t know how it will affect others. Let’s remember that this journey is far from over. And for some of us, it may have only just begun.