March 30, 2020

My Corona (or Is It Schmutz?)

I went in for a Covid-19 test March 17. I’m feeling much better but still awaiting my results.

For the first time in 21 days my temperature has been normal twice in a row, so as far as I’m concerned the fever is gone and the illness over. I still don’t know what I had. I got the coronavirus test March 17 and haven’t received the results.

If this is happening to me, it’s happening to others. A week and a half is a long time for suspense, especially when you’re sick, and speaks of a certain breakdown. In the early days of the pandemic the administration was embarrassed to have bungled the production and dissemination of tests. They say they’ve pumped millions of tests into the system, but if laboratories don’t have the gear or personnel to process the tests, the problem is not solved.

It is to be assumed, and some news reports imply, that the labs too are doing triage, as they should. Top priority would be those admitted to hospitals and exhibiting symptoms. Next might be doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel. Beyond that you’d hope they are thinking in terms of essential nonmedical personnel: firemen, cops, garbagemen, grid workers. I don’t remember being asked at the Northwell GoHealth urgent-care storefront on First Avenue if I was necessary, and I would have said, “No, alas,” if they’d asked. This reminds me of meeting a stooped old Marine with one eye in Washington in the 1980s. Somehow it came up that he’d fought at Guadalcanal. I asked if by chance he’d crossed paths with Richard Tregaskis. No, he said, who is he? He wrote an important account of the early days of the battle, “Guadalcanal Diary.”

The Marine gave me a steely one-eye look and said, “No, I was gone by the time the writers came.” This ever after gave me a subdued sense of my place in the order of things.

But with how poorly some government agencies have handled this thing in general, you have to wonder if the problem with reporting results is not only triage but other things, such as poor organization and planning and incompetent systems. Eight days in I entered the living hell of attempting to find my results through websites and patient portals. I downloaded unnavigable apps, was pressed for passwords I’d not been given, followed dead-end prompts. The whole system is built to winnow out the weak, to make you stop bothering them. This is what it’s like, in a robot voice: “How to get out of the forest: There will be trees. If you aren’t rescued in three to seven days, please try screaming into the void.”

Once I got through to an actual person who was assigned to another department at the clinic but kindly, furtively checked my name and date of birth. “We have no results for you on Covid-19,” she said. I asked if they were overwhelmed. She said they are “just trying to deal with the data. A lot.”


Here I’ll speak of my experience of whatever illness I had.

Various tests had eliminated flu and other possibilities early on, and my doctor and I concluded I likely had a virus, maybe a common one opportunistically piggybacking on a pandemic, maybe the more celebrated one. If it was a common one I suspect others are having it too and so it should have a name, but not a distinguished one like corona. Let’s call it the schmutz virus.

It came three weeks ago with a chill, the next morning I felt fine, that night chills again, and a temperature of 101. It bopped around from 99 to 101.5.

Symptoms seem to vary a lot and everyone asks about them. Here was my coronavirus or schmutz:

A dry cough that turned deep and then wracking. Bad sore throat. The first week I had a funny electrical headache that made me think of silent videos of lightning in the distance. These would come, go away, return. Early on I experienced something that some people are reporting, a racing heart. Just a minute or two of a fast-beating heart, mostly at night as I read. Looking back, this started in the days before the fever. I think it was my system flashing red: We are fighting something.

There are reports some lose their sense of taste and smell, and some have conjunctivitis — not me. Fatigue a week in, which I discovered after I stripped down and made up a bed and was so exhausted I had to nap.

There seems no accounting for how hard the virus hits one person and not another, nor for the duration of the illness. Mine stayed so long because I believe it heard I’m a charming host. If yours doesn’t linger you should ask yourself: Why?

From the beginning I took self-quarantine both literally and seriously, going out only for a doctor’s appointment, a virus test and a run to the bank. I haven’t been home for three weeks in 30 years.

There will be a lot of self-reckoning going on inside a lot of us in the coming months and years. For me there have been some surprises. One is that I didn’t do anything most of the time and yet each day sped by kind of satisfyingly. And I didn’t feel lonely — there’s been a lot of telephoning, texting, emailing, even FaceTiming.

I wanted to read Trollope but instead mostly read the intellectual equivalent of comfort food — Honoria Murphy’s respectful memoir of her parents, Gerald and Sarah; A.E. Hotchner’s “Papa Hemingway,” which I hadn’t read since it first came out when I was a teenager and was important to me then. A lot of Lost Generation literature going on here. I read Jay Parini’s fair-minded biography of Robert Frost, whose work I more and more revere but whose nature and personality I somehow cannot warm to. It would irritate him to hear his effortful life makes you think of Carl Sandburg: “This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.”

That resonates, doesn’t it?

Let’s be inappropriately personal because what the hell. Through the larger drama of the past few weeks my spirits have been good but my emotions somehow closer to the surface. I found I didn’t want to binge on Netflix, I wanted to watch what other people were watching and watch it with them. “A League of Their Own,” and “Les Miserables” have been in cable rotation, and moments in them which in the past hadn’t moved me moved me now. I watched, “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and in the restaurant scene when they all break into “I Say a Little Prayer for You” — it choked me up. I’m choked up now!

Man, what a time. Here is a real-life moment. I mentioned running out to the bank. We’re all tipping $20s in Manhattan and I ran low. I walked over in full regalia — N95 mask, sanitary gloves, high-necked coat and scarf. As I walked home I passed by the 90th Street Pharmacy, looked in the shining windows, and saw Hamidou and Barbara at the counter. I felt so grateful for them. I knocked on the glass, they looked, and I drew myself up and threw them a full, formal military salute. At exactly that moment I thought: Oh no, the mask, the gloves, they won’t recognize me! But they did, immediately, and we laughed and applauded each other.

How fiercely we love people we don’t know we love.

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