Just as the news of successful vaccines was announced, I got COVID-19. Here’s what it was like.
My partner and I had been scrupulous in our efforts to protect ourselves. But it’s impossible to preempt every possible source of infection, and apparently the virus was unmoved by our care.
Testing revealed we’d indeed succumbed to the dreaded COVID-19.
When I got up, I could tell something wasn’t right. Nothing extreme, more like a cold coming on, though without the runny nose. I was a bit grumpy and felt like my body was under strain. My fitness tracker showed an unusually high heart rate a few hours prior to waking that day.
The hours progressed, and it was clear I was getting sick. When sitting my heart rate was around 100 beats per minute, and I began to get intense waves of discomfort. Like I’d had too much coffee, but without the positive effects.
At that point I had none of the commonly reported symptoms. At least aside from periodically convincing myself my lungs weren’t working, and feeling breathless till I realized I was fine. Not helped by having laryngitis, possibly COVID related, but something I occasionally get from acid reflux anyway.
That night was sleepless. Part anxiety, but mostly because of immune system activity, which raised my heart rate and made me feel over-stimulated. That’s not unusual though, even a head cold will give me a sleepless first night, though this was more intense.
Lying in bed those hours was unpleasant. I was as prosaic as I could be, but there was a thick dread to descending into this illness, waiting to see just how bad it would get.
I arose the next day feeling surprisingly okay: the adrenalin of zero sleep and being besieged by a pathogen.
Body weight was down by a kilogram.
I felt sick, but without the normal COVID characteristics. No cough. No real breathlessness. No fever. Still hungry. I could still taste. Hopefully this was a good sign.
I spent the day as normally as I could, still ambulatory, trying to be productive.
Again I didn’t really sleep that night, but did nod off for a couple hours at 6 AM the next morning.
The limited hours sleep that morning took away that adrenalized feeling, which made me feel exhausted. But I didn’t recognize the bone-crushing fatigue described by people with moderate to severe cases.
One additional symptom though: sinus congestion. Not bad, but definitely there.
My partner was a few days ahead of me, and seemed to be a decidedly mild case. I hoped I could follow her trajectory. Till that point the worst part had been the evening of the first day. Since then I hadn’t had those intense waves of discomfort.
However, we were both acutely aware of COVID’s unpredictability, and that critical threshold of the second week. People who seemed fine could suddenly become gravely ill.
That night felt like a massive release of tension, and I actually slept.
The sleep made me feel better the next day, although my heart rate was still up, with the night pattern being especially divergent from normal.
No change in symptoms—still felt mostly like a cold with no runny nose. But I seemed to feel better with each day.
Another day, another incremental improvement. With it a growing hope of getting out of the acute stage unscathed. I turned my mind to long COVID, clots, heart, brain, kidney and other possible damage.
Does a minor case minimize the possibility of those things? Christ I hope so.
I went to bed and had the most normal sleep of my illness.
Best day yet. My overnight heart rate graph was looking almost normal, and my day average was also decreasing down to normal levels. I began to feel optimistic that I might be one of those enviable people who take COVID in their stride and shake it off within a week.
This was my most active day for a while. I walked up and down stairs with a heavy grocery delivery, and stayed on my feet. In hindsight, I might have been overzealous.
Having had dinner, I sat down. I noticed a feeling horribly reminiscent of those intense waves on the first day. More dilute, but still uncomfortably frenzied. Also my heart refused to beat at a civilized rate.
COVID, you fickle jester. Was this the notorious moment of downfall that occurs at the week mark?
The hours passed, and my body remained resolutely in combat mode—I just couldn’t relax. The sleep I so needed was impossible.
Felt pretty smashed the next day. Heart rate graph showed the night was almost a write-off. Not completely though, I slept from 5-7:30 AM, during which heart rate was normal.
Weight was lowest yet: 2.5 kg down.
Spent the day pottering around. Aside from the exhaustion of lack of sleep, health seemed mostly okay. Thankfully, that intense, stimulated discomfort seemed to have gone again. However, the laryngitis was especially bad. My voice was hoarse and I had to clear my throat a lot. If I didn’t, it felt like my throat was closing up and breathing was difficult.
This was fuel for mind games: were my lungs slowly filling up, or was it just laryngitis inflammation at the top of my throat? When I cleared my throat, I was fairly certain it was the latter. But this was the point in the COVID timeline where people get dangerously ill.
It didn’t help I’d read that a hoarse voice was something the worst COVID cases had in common.
On waking, I realized I’d had a decent sleep, at least duration-wise. A good start. I scanned my body. Heart rate slow and steady, the elevated, hard beats had gone again. I felt tired, but still no deep fatigue.
Weight still down a bit. I checked the overnight heart rate graph. BPMs a bit higher than normal for the first couple hours of sleep, but settled into a normal pattern the rest of the night.
I felt reassured, but also cautious because of the grotesque whimsy of this disease. I had a perverse desire for the predictable course of a regular cold or flu.
That day I read way too much about long COVID and athletes dropping dead of COVID-related heart pathology.
Mercifully, I slept the previous night. Not especially well, but it was inline with my usual sleep issues instead of COVID dictated. As such, I awoke feeling tired, but not too bad.
Body weight starting to claw back because I’d been eating more.
I was quite active, staying on my feet most of the day working at my computer. When we moved a dryer upstairs I paid very close attention to how my lungs felt, scanning for a sense of unusual breathlessness. I was relieved to detect none.
This was the first day I no longer felt sick at all. A bit weary because of everything, but no sense of my body being compromised by sickness.
I was comfortably drowsy by the end of the day, and got off to sleep fine.
Woke at 4:45 AM. Annoyingly early, but not unusual, and actually another sign of normalcy.
The stodginess of mandatory house arrest was setting in. That along with the fact I was feeling physically intact led me to decide to exercise for the first time since the start of this ordeal.
It was an unnerving prospect, a real test of lung and heart damage. The stories of elite athletes dropping dead of heart attacks during post-COVID training rang in my my mind. Not the best backdrop for a workout.
I thought light cardio would be better than one of the makeshift resistance training sessions I’d been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. I figured they were too strenuous to be used as a cautious gauge.
I walked up and down the three storeys of steps at the house a few times, closely monitoring how puffed I felt. There was none of the widely reported breathlessness on exertion people have after COVID. Relief.
I did 41 trips up and down the height of the house for a total of 40 minutes of decent cardio (pretty miserable to do, but better than sitting around waiting for isolation time to run out). Still felt fine afterwards.
Considering it had been ten days, the make-or-break point was nearing the end for me, and my partner had sailed through.
Better sleep than they prior day, and again consciousness greeted me with reassuring normalcy.
I repeated the seemingly endless journeys up and down the stairs to get some movement in, but this time followed it with some tentative leg training.
Same pattern—no undue heart weirdness of lack of breath. That was extremely good news.
I really seemed to have got off unscathed through the acute phase of this thing. I just hoped there was no invisible damage waiting to make itself known, or the recurring horror of long COVID.
A trip through paranoia
Planet wide, the year 2020 has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s utterly disrupted modern human life. We’ve been inundated with harrowing accounts of the severe cases of this illness, and footage of mortally desperate people overflowing hospitals.
Statistically, most people will at least survive. But despite the low fatality rate, there are many other horrendous outcomes. Terrifying stints in hospital, permanent damage to organs, ongoing and debilitating symptoms of long COVID, strokes and heart attacks down the line.
Most likely to have the worst outcomes are the elderly. But no age group is spared, young children and elite athletes included. And yet others are apparently asymptomatic, or have very minor sickness. That makes COVID-19 a nightmarish lottery.
Against all this, testing positive was a shocking, doom-laden experience. You suddenly know for sure the heart of all the chaos is inside you, and there’s nothing you can do but hang on for the ride and hope for the best.
Being someone who highly values the physical side of life, permanent breathlessness and diminished bodily capacity are hideous prospects, even aside from fatal outcomes. Perhaps that makes me more averse to infection than most, but I was really hoping to hang on till vaccination.
As it was, my partner and I happened to be extraordinarily lucky, not even getting much of an initial illness. That in itself has been surreal, getting off so lightly when others are mauled.
During the course of this experience I sought information, and there was little about the trajectory of a mild case. In that vein, I hope this is informative, and that you follow a similar path if you also end up infected.
Thank you for reading.