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Waves

Almost a year ago, I wrote a firsthand account of the pandemic as a humble medical frontliner.

Foolishly, with the protection and arrogance afforded by months of level-4 PPE and consistently negative swabs, I thought that my participation in this scourge would be limited to that of a willing participant and scribe.

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As the parable goes, “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

March 31: It all started with a nagging feeling of warmth in my joints, which proceeded to spread and envelope my body. I was not the only one that felt under the weather during that time. Metro Manila was under a cloud of unrest as the fourth surge of COVID-19 cases reared its hostile head and threatened to dismantle the flimsy battlements we had hastily erected in the small time since the last wave.

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How oddly cheerful the term we chose to describe this sudden peak in cases—“wave.” It conjures blue skies, pristine waters, and whistling wind carrying fresh air.

But the term has since been co-opted and corrupted. Each wave, instead of mirroring tall pristine swells borne by blithe winds, has been more akin to pits of despair, sending people to troughs of unknown depth and pressure. These waves have ravaged communities and households from coast to coast since COVID-19 began in December 2019.

I became swab-positive on my second day of illness.

On the seventh day, the delirium-inducing fever continued to plague me. With the remaining strength I had in the midst of what I could only describe as a cytokine storm, I finally accepted that what I had was not mild COVID-19. I placed my soaked clothes in the laundry bin, made sure my perishables were in the fridge, unplugged the appliances, and packed a bag for the hospital.

As I took timid strides toward the emergency room, it took everything in me not to shiver. Not from the unusually cold air on my clammy skin but from the fear that was invading my heart, the way the virus was invading my lungs.

That week of confinement was all soft and sharp reds, blues, and grays splashed onto a sterile white canvas that slowly ebbed and flowed into another day in a hospital gown. Things that I only read in medical literature and saw secondhand during residency, I was doing in practice. The tachycardia due to the high-degree fevers. The wracking dry coughs followed by shortness of breath secondary to the ground glass opacity in both of my lungs. The feeling of a tightening tourniquet followed by a needlestick. The recurrent beeping of drip machines heralding occluded intravenous lines. The bland taste of hospital food in my dry mouth. The odd sight of men and women (sometimes there was no way of knowing which) in white synthetic polyester coveralls while the sun rose and set with me lying on the same spot. It was all unsettling, but I took comfort in knowing that my senses were still intact.

It was on the 10th day of my illness that the fever finally broke. Slowly, I could take deep breaths again without coughing. I wasn’t in need of antipyretics. I completed my course of antiviral.

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On the 14th day, I changed out of my hospital gown for the last time. I packed my bag for home. It felt lighter despite containing the same articles of clothing, toiletries, and electronics.

In the interval, I had to recondition my body to activities of daily living. I learned to stop checking myself for fever.

On the 21st day, I finished my mandated quarantine. The day after, I went back to training and seeing patients. How surreal to be back at the other end of the stethoscope.

On the 50th day, I donated convalescent plasma. As I sat there with my blood slowly draining from my arm and into the tubes leading into the apheresis machine, I could not help but wax nostalgic about my COVID-19 journey. Looking back, it was not the sweat-drenched nights or the anxiety over elevating inflammatory markers that figured prominently in my reel of memories. It was the daily video calls with my family over meals to augment my appetite, the thoughtful care packages and messages from concerned loved ones and acquaintances, and the shared laughter and tears in between IV drips with old and new friends.

Everything in life has its opposite. Kindness and apathy, truth and misinformation, health and sickness. We think that one is irreconcilable with the other when it is actually two faces of the same coin. The month that I had my personal encounter with COVID-19, with the help of my community, I was able to find the borders of illness, precariously traverse the narrow dividing plane, and safely cross to the other side: complete recovery.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes to sleep, I go back to my hospital room with the wide windows. They say every window is a portrait. Now I know that it didn’t matter which side I looked through, because either way I was one of the lucky ones.

* * * 

Mae Gianelli F. Boco, MD, 29, is a third-year medical resident at St. Luke’s Medical Center-Global City.‍

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TAGS: Mae Gianelli F. Boco, medical fronliners, surviving COVID-19, Young Blood
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