Every breath I took, it was like a fakir’s bed of nails was pressing down on me’
The more we know about an illness, the better we understand it. In the case of the novel coronavirus, there’s an added urgency insofar as summer is ending and the annual flu season is just around the corner. It’s surely useful that people should be able to gauge as quickly as possible if they or their loved ones have come down with regular flu or Covid-19 – especially since symptoms tend to vary from person to person.
Those who’ve already had the virus, and come out the other side, are the obvious source of information here; getting them to talk, however, is another matter. With 1,558 cases (and counting), it’s easy enough to locate former Covid patients on the island – yet that status also seems to carry a stigma, at least for many. Dr Dimitris Aspros, an orthopaedic and trauma surgeon, was the only person willing to go on the record, of those we contacted. A married couple, Anna and Philippos (not their real names), also agreed to share their experience with the Cyprus Mail. Two others were also not averse to being interviewed, but had been asymptomatic and didn’t have much to contribute. The majority of former patients, however, were unwilling to talk, even anonymously.
Instead we heard alarming stories of, for instance, a woman who visited a friend a few weeks after recovering from the virus – only for the friend’s daughter-in-law to start screaming hysterically upon catching sight of her, forcing her to leave. Another recovered patient told the Cyprus Mail of going to buy bread with his daughter, and waiting outside on the pavement while the child went inside. A couple parked and got out of their car, to enter the bakery – but stopped when they saw him and, presumably recognising him, got back in their car without a word and drove away. He had no wish to re-live his experience, this man told us firmly, nor to dwell any more on “this cursed virus”.
Social ostracism of former Covid patients is clearly wrong – not to mention irrational, since they’re probably the least infectious among us. (Dr Aspros did a test after his recovery, confirming that he has indeed developed antibodies.) It’s a superstitious reaction, which – like all superstitions – is rooted in ignorance, yet another reason to find out more about how coronavirus works and what it feels like.
“If the flu feels like you’ve been hit by a car, this one feels like you’ve been hit by a train!” replies Philippos when the question is put to him. “And it just goes on and on and on… I’ve had bronchitis in my life, I’ve had Type-A flu. Those were maybe two days in bed, tops. With this one, every day I felt worse than the previous day.”
Philippos (a jolly, good-humoured man, despite everything) suffered a severe case of coronavirus; he was seriously ill for almost a month, spent 10 days in hospital (including five in the reference hospital in Famagusta) and at one point had to be given oxygen, though he was never placed on a ventilator. Anna and Dr Aspros were moderate cases, but still quite serious; they were sick for two weeks and 10 days, respectively. “When they say it’s like flu, it’s not exactly the same,” notes the doctor. “First of all, it lasted much longer. Secondly, the fever was constant – all the time, all the time, it wouldn’t go down. So it was quite exhausting.”
Coincidentally or not, all three are similar cases. All are in their early 40s. All are somewhat overweight. (Anna and Philippos might even be classed as obese, in strict BMI terms.) Most intriguingly, though the state of their health varies slightly – Philippos has type-2 diabetes; Anna suffers, like many Cypriots, from a Vitamin D deficiency – all had similar symptoms, which weren’t necessarily the textbook symptoms.
None of the three had a cough, often cited as the most common symptom. Anna didn’t even have a fever; the others did, but it was always a low fever (under 39 degrees). All three reported loss of smell and taste, though at the time – late March through mid-April in the case of the couple; mid-March in the case of Dr Aspros – that wasn’t universally recognised as a symptom. Anna and Philippos suffered bad diarrhea (not a common symptom). Anna, who has seasonal asthma, also suffered pain in her lungs. “Every breath I took, it was like a fakir’s bed of nails was pressing down on me,” she recalls memorably.
But the main, most ubiquitous symptom by far was fatigue and exhaustion, the body depleted by the effort of fighting off this new intruder. “He was sleeping all day,” recalls Anna of her husband in the first few days, before he was tested. “Either in bed or here on the sofa. Out cold.” The couple have a toddler, which made the whole experience even more gruelling – especially since it was also during lockdown, with the whole country in the grip of paranoia. Anna recalls a day when they were both unwell, before Philippos was admitted to hospital.
“I need to lie down, watch the baby,” she mumbled, and went to bed – only for him to slump down next to her, exhausted, a few minutes later. She can still recall the effort of forcing herself out of bed, the thought of their child alone in the other room – potentially about to hurt himself – just about breaking through her corona-induced stupor.
Anna got the virus off her husband. Philippos believes he was infected at the supermarket – a number of cases had indeed been identified at their local supermarket – even though the couple were being extremely careful (mask, gloves, changing clothes after coming home, etc). Dr Aspros, who was one of the very first cases on the island, assumes he got it from a patient, and is only thankful that he didn’t infect anyone else. None of the three encountered any of the social ostracism mentioned by others, indeed the doctor has been inundated with questions – boiling down, he says, to two most frequently asked questions: ‘Is this thing real?’ and ‘How did you know you had it?’.
The second question is a little tricky, since symptoms do vary – and in fact, with the virus possibly mutating, there’s no guarantee that cases in November or December will look exactly like those in March or April. (The doctor also points out that the vast majority of cases are likely to be milder than the three featured here.) The first question is even trickier, opening a whole other can of worms.
“I do get annoyed sometimes,” says Dr Aspros mildly, “when people say ‘There’s no such thing as coronavirus’. Some have even said it to me: ‘You didn’t have Covid-19, you had the flu’ – and I get a bit annoyed, because I know what I had!”
Philippos agrees: “What some people say, that ‘It’s a lie, it’s just a conspiracy so they can control us’ and so on – well, those of us who’ve had it, we can say ‘It’s not a lie’. I’ve never experienced such an illness before.”
The one silver lining is that, having had it, they’ve presumably acquired some immunity. Even here, however, Anna is dubious (maybe because she and Philippos got sick despite being so careful), worried that having been infected means they’re more susceptible to the virus, and likely to become re-infected. The whole thing was traumatic – not just the illness but the whole experience, from tests being mislaid to a young child having to be shielded and protected – and seems to have left its mark on her. Like her husband, she’s a bubbly, extroverted person – but she’s strict about social distancing, and follows the measures religiously. She went out with some girlfriends recently, and got quite upset when one friend picked up her (Anna’s) handbag. Wasn’t that how her husband got sick in the first place, from a stray droplet on some random surface?
“We’re all just dry kindling,” she concludes dramatically. “And a single drop of spit can be the spark.”