A chaplain who helped a dying mother say goodbye to her incarcerated son over FaceTime. A woman who coughed on the floor until she gasped for breath, certain she was going to die there alone. A doctor who was forced to reuse her mask for weeks, terrified that she might infect her family.
Since March, I’ve interviewed people around the world about the new disease sweeping across the world. As Covid-19 spread, I’ve spoken to epidemiologists, politicians, and sent many unanswered queries to health departments.
Horrors at such a scale can be difficult to put in perspective. Psychologists call this effect psychic numbing. People feel compassion when they see one person suffer, but when over 125,000 die (the latest US milestone), we can become numb. So much pain is hard to comprehend.
Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, studies human judgment, decision making, and psychic numbing after mass human tragedies. He says psychic numbing is enabling leaders to “give up the fight against this still raging pandemic, in order to open up the economy.”
To help combat the numbing, here are a few people’s stories of surviving Covid-19, in their own words. These patients live in Nigeria, Spain, Iran, England, Italy, and New Jersey, and they each had different experiences with their medical systems. Some health institutions have clearly responded better than others.
These stories, edited and condensed for clarity, are not meant to be representative. Rather, they’re a reminder that behind every Covid-19 statistic there’s a person with loved ones — someone who wants the world to do better in the fight against the virus.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, 29, Lagos, Nigeria
I started feeling sick in early March. I had just arrived back in Nigeria from the UK. I self-isolated — I wasn’t sure it was Covid-19, but I wanted to protect other people — and called the Nigeria Center for Disease Control. It took 24 hours before I was tested, and my test result confirmed I had contracted Covid-19.
I was the third case in Nigeria. It was really scary. They came with an ambulance and took me to the female isolation unit. It was quiet; I was literally the first person there. I was like, ‘Oh my god. They haven’t had any other female cases, what is the guarantee they will be able to handle my case?’ It was just a ward with a lot of empty beds. Being alone in that space could drive you crazy.
I was coughing, nauseous, vomiting, and had diarrhea. I lost my sense of taste, and couldn’t drink water. Being sick away from my family was really tough. I had my cellphone, but also I didn’t want to get in touch with people, to make them worried. I felt alone.
I was there for over two weeks, so other people joined me later. It was nice to have company, to see other people and have someone to talk to, but that was also scary. I started thinking about how this is spreading — how many more people are contracting the virus. There were times I was anxious I wasn’t getting better. Even when I was released, the media was calling my phone, nonstop texting me, and I started panicking. That’s why my phone is on silent. I panic when it rings.
I was sick for a week, and then felt better for another week. They tested me over and over until I tested negative.
When I left, I just signed a document. The government took care of everything: the test, my care in the isolation center. It was all free. I didn’t have to do any paperwork. But some states in Nigeria are doing great in response, while others are struggling to set up test centers. It just goes to show the capacity of every state to respond to crisis. We have gaps, and it showed.
What I saw, it makes you realize life is so fickle. You could be here today, and gone tomorrow. I want to make the best use of my time. I’m going to spend my money. [Laughs] I guess I’ll be fine.
Eugenio Valero, 53, Madrid, Spain
A few days after the Spanish government declared lockdown, on March 15, I started to have a fever. Of course, I thought maybe it was Covid-19, but I didn’t give it much import at the beginning. I work in a very large company, in a multinational finance department, and later I learned one of my colleagues who sits in front of me got Covid-19. He was in the ICU for five weeks with a ventilator. I was also in contact with several other colleagues who had symptoms.
After 10 days I hadn’t improved. I called the number the government gave the public and they said, “We’ll see how you do.” Then at Day 14, I started to feel worse. I told them I was starting to feel some difficulty breathing, not too much but a little. They said to go to the hospital. Because my wife also had Covid-19 at the same time, I had to call my brother and say, “You may need to take care of my children, because we are both sick.”
I know our health care system is really good, but I’m even more impressed after Covid. It was so easy. I arrived at the hospital, and in five minutes they called me in. In 25 minutes, I was getting a lung scan, and then in an hour, I was assigned a room. The next morning they tested me for Covid-19.
I shared a room with a man in his 70s. He needed an oxygen mask. The nurses and doctors had PPE, double masks and plastic covers and a face shield. We also had to wear a mask when a doctor or nurse came to the room. My wife received a daily call from the doctor. I felt like I was in very good hands.
The first two or three days I was getting worse, but my oxygen levels were more or less stable. Every day they gave me an antiviral and also Heparin [for blood clotting]. My roommate was worse — when I left, he was still there.
I was in the hospital for seven days and seven nights. I didn’t have to pay anything — I just gave them my social security number and card. We have universal insurance in Spain. I also have private insurance, but it’s just for if you want to get something done quickly. A lot of people have both. I pay 48 euros a month for my insurance. But we always start with the public system, because the best doctors are in the government system.
I was sicker, but my wife took longer to recover. She never went to the hospital, but they followed up with her at home. She felt ill for almost six weeks. My 14-year-old son had a headache and stomach pain, but just for one day. The little girl — she’s 5, she was a surprise! — said she also had a headache.
I guess one good thing to come out of this is we both realized we can work from home. We’ll probably fight to have more working days from home, and have a better life.
My criticism is not of the medical staff, but the political staff. They should have reacted faster. They thought it wouldn’t be that bad in Spain, because we have a solid medical system. But we didn’t react in time. And I was surprised that stable democracies, like the US and the UK, didn’t do lockdowns. This is quite strange for me. We are talking about the most powerful countries in the world. We need more scientists in politics — because this will happen again.
Yahya Kiani, 49, Tehran, Iran
In mid-February, I had the symptoms of a bad cold for about a week, including a severe fever and shivering. I visited a doctor, and she prescribed me cough syrup and a pain reliever. You trust your doctor, but it seems that this doctor was not informed about this disease.
Before this I didn’t have any health conditions; I don’t even smoke. I didn’t find out exactly how or who infected me, but I’m a bank clerk and interact with people all day. My coworkers told me that I was very pale. And I constantly collapsed on the ground. After a week, because I didn’t get better, I started trying to get further help.
On February 28, I went to Melli Bank Hospital in Tehran, but they referred me to Sina Hospital, where they said the chance of it being the coronavirus was low. Then I went to Imam Khomeini Hospital, where they did a CT scan of my chest. They said that there was a high probability it was Covid-19, but they didn’t have a quarantine ward. The next day, I went to Baqiyatallah Hospital, and they confirmed the result, but didn’t have room for me either. Finally, an ambulance transferred me to Shohadaye Tajrish hospital, where I was ultimately admitted.
Because this virus spread so quickly, the hospital wasn’t prepared for this kind of a pandemic. For example, I was in my clothes from home for the first three days! I and several other patients — who were severely ill — were put in a big room, which I think was originally the stockroom. Of course, I don’t mean to say that the hospital staff were not doing their job. But the incoming patients were way more than the hospital capacity.
At first, because of the severity of my situation, I was not aware of things around me. But after the fourth day, things started to get much better as the medical team managed the situation.
I was in the hospital for six days. When I was discharged, I was much better but I wasn’t fully healed. The doctors took the oxygen mask away, tested the oxygen level of my blood and took my temperature, then told me I could go home. I expected a bill, but they told me that there was no need to pay. I think it cost about a million rials (about $11), but the hospital took care of it.
The doctors prescribed me a couple of medications, but unfortunately, the hospital drugstore didn’t have those in stock. They referred me to another drugstore, but they only had one of them. I never found the other medications anywhere.
I was very weak, and it took eight to 10 days until I was capable of returning to my normal life. My lungs were weakened, so for a long time, if I did something like going up the stairs, my lungs started to ache, and I’d cough. But I heard a lot of my friends are in a worse situation than me.
Mental health was something that was neglected in the treatment process. Although the medical team was very kind and caring, I wasn’t able to talk to anybody for days, and my wife told me later that I was in a really bad situation mentally. At a low point, I had a near-death experience. I could see the doctors working on me, but I couldn’t feel them. Now looking back, it was a beautiful experience.
We are facing these pandemics maybe every few years. I think there should be psychological care for these patients too. When a patient is discharged, I think there should be some kind of support.
Amy, 43, Birmingham, England
Amy requested her last name not be used for privacy reasons.
I came back from Washington, DC, on the 10th of March and went straight to work. I was really fatigued, but I thought it was just jet lag. Then I started getting the shakes and the chills. And the headache was like someone hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. I just couldn’t get warm. I self-isolated, and I can’t tell you what happened. It just passed in a blur of sweats, chills, and headaches.
After about seven days, my chest just felt like there was a vise around it. I could not get enough oxygen into my lungs, no matter what I tried, lying on my back, sitting up — I couldn’t do it. I’ve never felt the need to call 999 ever in my entire life. But the National Health Service came and got me straight away. They didn’t have full PPE, but they had a face mask and gloves. I was probably in the first wave.
I remember sitting in the ER, with about 12 other people waiting to be tested, which is quite a lot, considering. I can remember it, but it was like it was happening to someone else, like it was in a drunken haze. When you have kids, you know, it’s painful, but we can’t remember the pain. And it was like that. Part of me was thinking, am I hallucinating all this? Because it was slow motion, it was just so surreal.
When the test came back positive, I was segregated and put into a separate ward. There were six beds, with curtains between them.
We are lucky that everyone is entitled to a standard level of care, but the nurses, bless them, watching them go up and down and not being able to touch people — it broke my heart. I was in the hospital for 48 hours, on oxygen therapy. I’m one of the lucky ones. That worked. We pay our national insurance straight out of our wages, so it was all free.
I didn’t have any contact with my parents because they’re both elderly, and one’s got diabetes, and I knew they would just panic. And my daughter was at university. I told them when I got out. They were angry, relieved, and let’s just say the language was blue.
In the weeks I was recovering, it felt like I hadn’t used my muscles in years. Since then, I’ve done two plasma donations. The first one they said was fabulous, but two weeks later, my second one just got turned down — they said the antibodies and antigens aren’t high enough in it. I asked, what does that mean? Does that mean my immunity is going down very quickly? [Editor’s note: Initial reports suggest it is unlikely that you can contract Covid-19 more than once, but we still don’t have enough research to definitively say whether you can be reinfected or how efficient or persistent antibodies will be.]
But my outlook is what will be, will be. I could get run over by a bus tomorrow. I don’t want to spend any more time self-isolating than I have to. Staring at my walls is doing my mental health no good. But when I walk my dog, I see people out all together, not social distancing, and part of me wants to go, ‘What are you doing?’
My daughter came home the first weekend in April, with a persistent cough. But I thought it doesn’t matter now, you’re self-isolating. You’re at home, you’re with me. So she wasn’t tested, but I have my suspicions.
None of the people that I socialized with in America got sick. They were doctors, nurses, medics. We’re in a Facebook group chat, so I just said, “Look guys, came back and tested positive last week, sorry.” I think I picked it up in my last couple of days, where it was just me sightseeing around Washington, DC — where you get into the back of a Lyft, and then you use the Metro.
I may have thought I was invincible. Now, if my government is telling me I have to buckle down and stay at home for eight weeks, I’ll do it.
I’m very lucky. I’m paid by the government. I can load a laptop up from my house. I feel sorry for the people that can’t, and for the families and the children stuck at home. I think being sick did change me: I liked to be optimistic before, but I’m probably more of a pragmatist now.
Sergio, 60, Milan, Italy
As told by his sister, who requested his last name not be used for privacy reasons.
Unfortunately, my brother passed away a month ago. He lived in Milan. He got Covid-19 at the end of March from his wife, who is a general practitioner. She had a high fever and a strong cough. He didn’t have the usual Covid symptoms — no fever at all, just low oxygen saturation, but all of his organs suffered. He already had major health issues.
They did what they could. In Italy, there is free health care, so everything was covered. After a couple weeks, he seemed like he was getting better. We saw him in video calls with WhatsApp, never in person. But his poor heart couldn’t handle it anymore. He eventually died from cardiac arrest, at the age of 60.
Only a few people were allowed at the funeral in May, but that’s only because we were entering the second phase of the Italian lockdown. Now we’re grieving, and trying to live with Covid-19, wearing masks and social distancing.
He was a good man, he loved his family and his mom, like every good Italian man.
Kathleen Ronan, 51, Lehigh Valley, New Jersey
My symptoms started on March 27 with a mild cough and a low temperature. My family doctor sent me to the ER on April 1. I was running fevers of 103, while using ice packs on my underarms, groin, and neck. I went by ambulance to a nearby university hospital, but I was sent home by the ER doctor. I begged him not to send me home, and told him he had no idea how sick I was. He said he did, because “that’s what he gets paid for.”
On April 3, my fever went up to 104.5. My 16-year-old daughter was caring for me, and at one point, she took the Tylenol away from me because I tried to take 2,000 mg in one dose. (Smart kid!) She called the doctor because I was so delirious — and did the talking, because I was making no sense.
I remember the tent outside the hospital, but not much more. I had to ask for a lot of what I wanted. I’m a nurse, so once I was a bit more coherent, I could do that. After I was transferred out of the ICU, I discovered by accident that I had an inhaler. It was ordered “as needed,” but I was told doses were never given because I never asked for it. I didn’t know because it was never offered. For a respiratory patient with low oxygen levels receiving supplemental oxygen, it should have been given every four hours. I filed an incident report for that. A layperson would never have uncovered the mistake at all.
When I was finally home, it took about two weeks to get around without a walker. It took another two weeks to try the stairs. At first, it was a good day when I could sit up all day.
I still tire easily. I have intermittent headaches. I get short of breath with more than one flight of stairs. And I have panic attacks when in a face mask. I’ve worked in isolation rooms as a nurse. I worked in the OR for a time where we were masked and in sterile gear all day long — masks never bothered me. Now, it’s a PTSD reaction to being masked, on oxygen, and not able to breathe for a week in hospital.
The hospital bill was over $30,000, but fortunately covered by insurance after my $5,000 family deductible. America’s health care system is broken. Even more broken than I’d ever imagined. I would not want to be alone and unable to advocate for myself at all while in hospital. Hospitals carry on marketing campaigns about their “five star” ratings, and staff are pressured to “strive for five,” as if nurses are merely glorified cocktail waitresses. They’re expensive behemoths, and they compete with other hospitals for “business.” Caring for sick people is not, nor should it ever in my professional opinion be a business.
But it’s not just the hospital. It’s the whole pandemic situation coupled with the political climate in the US. It’s made me very angry and frustrated. My job is to prevent or ease suffering and to teach people to be well. Now, I just feel rage at the lack of consideration and common sense. I have a lot less patience. I was never one to suffer fools, but this has made it worse.
Lois Parshley is a freelance investigative journalist and the 2019-2020 Snedden Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Follow her Covid-19 reporting on Twitter @loisparshley.
Ali Mollasalehi and Dayo Aiyetan contributed reporting.