To Everyone's Surprise, COVID-19 Spared My Lungs
Every time she coughed, a bit of anxiety would creep in my head. I began saying it aloud, “I think you have it, you should go get tested.” What if it was COVID? And what if I was inhaling the virus floating around our house? It was mostly out of curiosity for me by that point because the window of time to have quarantined myself from my mom in our shared home was long gone.
After her test came back positive about 5 days or so after showing symptoms of sinus congestion, an incessant cough, a little fever, and overall body weakness, I decided I should get a test as well. I knew for certain I had been exposed, but if my test came back negative, that would mean that my body had stopped the virus in its tracks before ever having alerted the majority of my immune cells.
A day after my mom’s positive test, both the rapid and PCR tests came back negative for me.
Thankful for my immune system
I was impressed with my body. After a lifetime of being beaten down by the slightest of colds due to having cystic fibrosis (CF), I knew that my immune system was now the strongest it had ever been. About a year ago I began taking a newly approved therapy that treats the underlying cellular issues in CF, reducing the severity of my symptoms. The last few months of consistent exercise and attention to taking my vitamins and supplements had paid off.
CF is a genetically inherited lung disease in which cellular imbalances cause a continual production of a sticky, thicker than average mucus inside the lungs. Instead of shuffling away and repelling the bacteria that we all breathe every day, CF patients suffer from these bacteria getting stuck in and forming colonies in the heavy mucus. This results in a lifelong risk of infections that must be mitigated with chronic use of antibiotics, steady deterioration of the lungs themselves over time, and ultimately respiratory failure from the unending cycle of inflammation and infection. The relentless bacteria in my lungs require multi-week courses of antibiotics every year, and every year the antibiotics become less effective as the bacteria adapt to them.
Experiencing COVID symptoms
The morning my symptoms started, I initially chalked it up to general tiredness from staying up late the night before, but the symptoms quickly progressed to a fever of 102 for the remainder of the day. Besides a pounding headache, the typical COVID cough that my mom had experienced (and what I had heard was often one of the first symptoms) was nonexistent for me. Since my tests had shown I was clear, I figured that I was simply experiencing a flare-up of a dreaded infection, a frequent symptom of CF. To treat it, I started taking the usual oral and inhaled antibiotics.
Popping Tylenol every few hours, the headache and fevers kept me on the couch for a few days. I also started developing sinus pressure and drainage a few days after the fever started. I informed my pulmonologist and decided to get a repeat COVID test so that I would know how to best proceed with treatment.
Testing positive for COVID
My pulmonologist called me the following day a bit frantic. This was 5 days after my first symptoms appeared. He and I both learned about the same time that I had tested positive on the third test. It seems that the PCR COVID test can be unreliable prior to the onset of noticeable symptoms.
Until that point, my symptoms had been much milder than many of the illnesses I had experienced in the past. In early 2019, I caught respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and emerged from it with only 18% lung function – the weakest I have ever been in my life. At the time, I was using supplemental oxygen through a nasal canula and struggling to breathe just standing in the shower and lifting my hands over my head to wash my hair. My airways were quite literally filling up with mucus, constricting my breathing. It led me to try an experimental treatment in an attempt to rid my body of the subsequent flare-up of the bacterial infection in my lungs. I was referred to a lung transplant center because of the damage inflicted on my lungs.
Fear and uncertainty
Becoming aware that I was COVID positive instilled some level of fear in me. Prior to the positive test and under the impression that my symptoms were the result of an ordinary bacterial flare-up, I was uneasy - but this wasn’t anything I couldn’t and hadn’t handled before. Now, I contemplated proactively heading into the hospital just to be monitored because of the sinus congestion and slight shortness of breath. I didn’t have any mucus congestion in my lungs, so I wouldn’t have needed any intravenous antibiotics yet – the key treatment that is only available to me emergently at the hospital and thus that I couldn’t access by staying at home.
If I had been someone stricken with fear of this virus to begin with, experiencing first a negative test and then actually contracting the virus would likely have taken a heavy toll on my mental health. But I admittedly experienced fear even when no symptoms indicated yet that I needed to be fearful. Why was COVID causing me this panic when I had always maintained composure even during long and challenging hospital stays – such as when one of my lungs collapsed - and on multiple occasions? I know the answer. The new fear was the result of the constant bombardment with statistics of the terrible illness and death looming over us these last few months.
A few more days after my positive test, about 7 days after my first symptoms, I started to return to normal. My fevers stopped, my sinuses dried up, I started slowly exercising again, and my fatigue passed.
Everyone who I had told about my sickness was shocked to learn that I had largely recovered after only a week. Many said I was lucky to not have become deathly ill. Many expected me to have been on my death bed in the hospital because I have cystic fibrosis. I am very thankful indeed to not have experienced anything close to how ill I have been in the past from other and lesser-known viruses that have infected and killed much fewer people.
Looking to the future
I am someone who examines situations realistically and rationally. I think it is important to be aware of the possible dangers, but also to not be paralyzed by fear of uncertainty. In my particular situation, I could not have realistically avoided catching the virus, but both my body and mind dealt with the consequences of the virus – both managing well. I don’t intend to minimize the reality that this virus causes for many, nor belittle the experience of others, and I mourn the loss of many lives. But I believe in addressing our situations to the best of our abilities, and the rest is simply out of our control.
I hope the vaccines are effective in eliminating or at least reducing the severity of the virus for many. I hope one day soon we can reflect, to some extent, positively on this time in our lives when we had to make sacrifices to protect and respect the health of others, and it having built our resilience to overcome the later hardships inevitable in our futures.
Have you or a loved one with cystic fibrosis had COVID? Share your experience in the comments below.
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