Mis Ángeles: 'Do I Have It?' What Happens When There Are No Tests And No Answers
There I am standing in my family dining room near my birthday cake and surrounded by the people I love the most. But they're fanned out at my insistence. No hugs. And I can't even blow out my candles. Instead, I take a long spoon and snuff them out.
See, my throat's been hurting and I've been having headaches that feel like someone is running by and punching me on one side of my head, and then doing it again going the other way.
"It's just a cold, un resfriado," my mom says. But I don't want to take any chances. She's 60 and my father is 70.
They don't look it.
But what does the virus care? It appears to be infecting and hurting indiscriminately. And as I look around the room full of Galindos ranging from ages 8 to 70, I can't think of one I wouldn't die for or any I could live without.
That scene from two weeks ago — what now feels like an eternity — played over in my mind as I stared patiently at a virtual waiting room screen a few days later. I was on a long hold for a video appointment with a doctor I'd never met or seen before.
It took him about two minutes to diagnose me as "A Person Under Investigation For Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)" and order me to self-isolation for two weeks. The screen froze in the middle of his diagnosis as my Wi-Fi went down, taking all peace of my mind with it.
I briefly tried to formulate an argument, like I was at a bar arguing with some stranger about the NBA dunk contest. But my mind went blank. I knew only two things at that moment: "There are no tests" and "I don't want to die."
I sat there alone, but also with the weight of everyone I loved on me, and the weight of everyone I had been in contact with during the past 14 days. I felt guilty. I felt stressed.
And that's when the thought first started: Is this a ghost of my mind, or a microscopic incubus sitting in my chest trying to destroy me?
It's a question that has haunted me every night of my self-isolation as I wait for what appear to be mostly mild symptoms to worsen suddenly.
Dr. Oliver called me back about 15 minutes after we were cut off to give me the details. I have a history of smoking from my misspent youth, and some childhood asthma. Plus I described having cold symptoms for about two weeks, which is longer than the norm. He also looked a little alarmed when I told him I was a journalist, which he said puts me at high risk too because, usually, I'm out talking to a lot of people. Even though I followed all the safety recommendations, even though I was wearing a cloth mask weeks ago.
"We'd better play it safe," he said. "I'm worried you've been exposed and the coronavirus has resurrected your childhood asthma." But his face looked worried and piteous. Maybe he was just mirroring mine.
The doctor prescribed me some asthma medication and told me that if I get to the point where "you feel like you can't breathe, can't talk or can't walk, you need to come in and get tested."
I jokingly told him, "Those are the symptoms of a corpse." To which he said, "Exactly. That's why it's very important to monitor your symptoms closely."
Closely I have. I've checked for fevers that haven't come unless they've happened in all the many times I've been too tired to be awake. I do feel warmest whenever there is a live coronavirus press conference or some other sad breaking news.
I've not had any chills either, just a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose for about 20 days, most of that before the official diagnosis.
And then there is the fire in my chest, which has burned sometimes. That happens mostly at night, when the stress of everything is most unmanageable. So maybe it's psychosomatic?
It's the not knowing that's driving me crazy. It's the unending lies about the availability of testing and ventilators coming from the White House. It's the open tap of armchair experts calling or texting or tweeting all the terrible things they've seen and read. It's the wondering if someone in my house is going to get sick because of me. It's the guilt of praying to God for my own recovery while knowing people in El Salvador are starving during the shelter orders. How the hell can anyone breathe through all that?!
Seven days after I was officially labeled with my nebulous diagnoses, I called Jimmy Han, an L.A. institution who owns a couple of K-Town bars and the lauded smash burger joint Love Hour. (The restaurant is doing home meal kits, if you want to support it.) Jimmy doesn't run the day-to-day and hasn't been in contact with any of his employees for more than a month. Just the same, his team is taking every precaution with the food prep.
Jimmy had been tweeting about his personal rona journey, so I knew he was probably having some of these same thoughts.
"What really messed with me was my wife and kids," Han said. "I was worried I'd get them sick."
Jimmy actually had fevers and chills for several days. He said he typically gets a body flu around this time of year, but this one hit him much harder, and it came with headaches.
"I don't usually get headaches and now I hear beeping sounds in my head, man," Jimmy said. After a few days, Han's wife was able to convince his doctor to secure him a coronavirus test.
"I needed to know for my sanity, more than anything," Jimmy said. "That, and I needed to know if the kids and my wife were in immediate danger."
Jimmy was in self-isolation for about 19 days before he finally got his test results. They were negative.
"It's a relief, because now at least I know I can see and talk to my family a little more," he said. "But I'm still having these nasty headaches. And I still can't sleep at night."
The worry is still too much for true relief. But at least talking about it made us both feel a little better.
In a way, I consider myself lucky. I may have this horrible disease or maybe I don't. It hasn't hit me too hard physically. My family is here for me even if they are all in the big house while I self-isolate in a little guest house in the backyard. But it's hard not to be able to hug or sit with anyone.
The last time I sat in the same room with my dad, he was reading a newspaper and upset that so many Latinos are losing their jobs. "It's always the Latinos," he said, and smacked the paper. A couple of weeks ago, he wasn't so worried about the virus. I don't know if he feels any different about it now that we are living it. But I know that he's been praying for me. My whole family has.
There are some days when I feel entirely fine. This past Sunday, there were three great moments where I didn't feel sick at all and didn't dread the idea of not knowing. I sat out in my backyard with a book and read a few pages before I had to take another nap.
As I write this, I'm about halfway through the 14-day window, and still no escalating signs. I'm getting better for the most part. I'm even feeling quite hopeful, especially since no one in my family has gotten sick at all.
"Maybe they are all asymptomatic and maybe I'm the only one," I often think. "Maybe I'll have the antibodies now and we can all worry a tiny bit less in this house after worrying for so long."
But I'm also hoping we don't get to find out. Because for most people right now, the only way you get to know if you have it is if you're terribly sick. And that's such an awful place to be.
Tonight, I'll take my steroid meds and I'll pray to God that there are more miracles for all of us than tragedies. And I'll again wonder: Is this a ghost of my mind, or a microscopic incubus sitting in my chest trying to destroy me?
But honestly, I'll laugh too. I'll think about the family I love — whole beautiful Galindo household — standing at a safe distance and singing happy birthday.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from L.A. Taco, where he was the managing editor.
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