My COVID-19 Story: One Step at a Time
As a high school music teacher, choir director, and singer, I’ve learned facial expressions matter. I was never more aware of this fact than when looking in the eyes of a doctor covered head to toe in protective equipment, his nose and mouth hidden by a mask, as he told me the lung scan I’d just received showed signs of COVID-19.
“I didn’t think it was the virus.”
I remember talking to a colleague on Friday, March 13th–which turned out to be the last day we went into school. We figured the coronavirus would be like the flu, based on what the news was reporting. We left the school that Friday not knowing we wouldn’t be coming in again on Monday.
The next Saturday, I started feeling feverish. I took my temperature and it was a little over 101 degrees. I woke up Sunday with the same temperature and took Tylenol every six hours to try to bring my fever down. I didn’t think it was the virus; I just thought it was some small cold. But on Monday morning, the fever was still raging, despite all the Tylenol, and I also had chills. I decided to go to an urgent care clinic.
They gave me a mask as soon as I walked in. The doctor told me they didn’t have any COVID-19 tests, but they would test for everything else. Everything came back negative. But because of my flu-like symptoms, they prescribed me Tamiflu and told me to keep taking the Tylenol as well.
I followed those directions for two days, but the fever and the chills were still there–and then I started to get a cough. That’s when I became really concerned. I called the clinic and told them my symptoms were worsening. They told me to come back in and gave me a Z-pack and a cough suppressant. They still couldn’t test me for COVID-19. They didn’t have the tests. But I knew my symptoms didn’t look great.
A few days later, I felt a bit better, but my fever was still high, my cough still persistent. I noticed it was a little harder to breathe, and getting up and walking around was difficult. So I decided to go to the ER.
“If anything changes with your breathing, come back right away.”
The ER wasn’t busy and I was seen pretty quickly. They took my vitals and did a lung X-ray, which is when they saw “bilateral patchy opacities.” As a singer, I have a basic knowledge of the respiratory system and how it works to produce a strong sound. I knew bilateral meant both sides–so both lungs. I figured the patches showing up in both of my lungs should not be there. The doctor clarified, “This is what we see in people with COVID-19.” But they still didn’t give me a swab test; they told me they would only do that if I were going to be admitted to the hospital. Since my oxygen levels were fine, they discharged me after a few hours. The last thing the nurse said to me before I left was, “If anything changes with your breathing, you have to come back right away.”
My reaction to the news was mixed. I was nervous. The nurses told me it was best to recover at home if possible, and I agreed. However, the next day, breathing was much harder, even when I was lying down. I noticed my fingernails were purple, and I remembered learning in some long-ago health class that purple or blue nails meant a lack of oxygen. That’s when I knew I had to go back to the ER.
“It looks a lot worse.”
On Sunday, the ER was packed; it was like a totally different hospital than the day before. After a couple hours of waiting, they put me on nasal oxygen. And once I was in a room, they did an EKG and a chest X-ray. I asked how my X-ray compared to the day before, and the doctor said, “It looks a lot worse.” They swabbed me for the COVID-19 test and told me they were quite sure I had it.
It was weird interacting with people when I could only see their eyes. That evening, a new nurse walked into my room and exclaimed, “Jared Berry?!” I scrutinized the woman in scrubs, a mask, and a face shield; all I could see were her eyes. My nurse turned out to be my high school prom date, Maria, whom I hadn’t seen in years. All the doctors and nurses were fantastic, but it made me feel a lot better to know I was in the care of an old friend.
“That was the scariest moment of my life.”
The next night, at 1am, I was woken by a different nurse, who asked me to take a few deep breaths. I remember closing my eyes and trying to take a breath, and then the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes, the lights were on, and there were eight people surrounding me, shouting my name. The doctor told me my oxygen levels were dropping, my fever spiked, and they needed to get me breathing better. That was the scariest moment of my life. They kept throwing bags of ice all over my body to cool me down because my fever was so high. They put an oxygen mask over my face in addition to the nasal oxygen. I was scared, but also grateful. My biggest fear was getting intubated, where they’d insert a tube into my trachea to put me on a ventilator. Knowing some type of tube would be passing by my vocal folds really freaked me out. I didn’t know how it would affect my singing voice and what impact that would have on my passion and my career. I resolved to make the face mask work no matter what. Fortunately, it did the trick and everything stabilized. I was very relieved and tried to sleep through the rest of the night.
A few days later, my symptoms weren’t improving much. I was given the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial involving a drug typically used for rheumatoid arthritis. I weighed the pros and cons, and asked the doctor what he thought I should do. He looked at me and said, “Well, to be honest, we’ve got nothing else. If I were you, I would go for it, because right now nothing else seems to be working.”
It did seem to work, and I ended up participating in two trials. My sweating and chills faded away, and it was refreshing to feel a little bit better.
“No matter what, I’m going home today.”
Throughout this time, I texted my sisters constantly. They passed along updates to my parents and my friends, who sent me love and encouragement. Emotionally, I stayed focused on taking it one step at a time. I’m a very process-driven person and I kept thinking, “Okay, what comes next? What is the road I have to take to get better?” I kept looking forward and tried to stay positive as more time went by.
After eight days of being in a hospital room, I still hadn’t been intubated, even though it was still hard to breathe. Eventually, the medical team decided I should try breathing without the face mask, and thankfully, I adjusted pretty quickly using only the nasal oxygen. Then they told me they’d be moving me somewhere else and wheeled me into a big auditorium. Looking at the carpet, I could see where the audience’s chairs had been ripped out to make room for patients. It was impossible to sleep that night, surrounded by other people with the virus as they coughed and tapped old-fashioned bells to get a nurse’s attention.
I learned the next day that being in the auditorium meant I was close to being discharged. That made me a little happier, but it was hard to be in that room. I was finally able to get off the oxygen and get out of bed. Taking my first steps after 10 sedentary days was quite a feat, but it felt good to make some progress, and every step seemed like a step closer to going home.
But my emotional strength was really tested the following day. I woke up feeling certain I would be discharged. I didn’t need the oxygen, I could walk, my fever was down, and my breathing was much better. I told the doctors and nurses, “I don’t care if it’s 2pm or 10pm–no matter what, I’m going home today.”
But there was a problem. They checked my vitals and my heart rate had spiked. The doctor told me it hadn’t been an issue before, and there were a whole host of things that could be causing it, including the anxiety of wanting to go home. I said I was sure that was it, but of course, they had to make sure it was nothing else. As they ran tests, that’s when my mood really dipped. They told me to try to relax so my heart rate would decrease, and I tried so hard to calm down. But all I could do was think about how badly I wanted to be home. I tried everything. I listened to recordings of my choir. I attempted sleep. I even tried just sitting and staring at nothing. But it wasn’t working, and that’s when I started to emotionally lose it. I just sat with my head in my hands and cried because I couldn’t wait to get home and I couldn’t calm myself down enough to do so.
“I could have cried of happiness.”
The next morning, my heart rate was at a healthy level and I was ecstatic–and impatient. The nurse promised me she’d get me out of there by the end of her shift. The doctor told me I’d be leaving soon. But then a different doctor came by to tell me I needed one more CAT scan to check for blood clots, which would take a few hours to arrange and review. I was discouraged and didn’t want to wait any longer to leave. After I received the news, the nurse took my vitals, and, of course, my heart rate had jumped back up. I thought, “After the news you just gave me, of course my heart rate is going to be high!”
I got through the CAT scan and begged the technicians to get my results as soon as they could. And before I knew it, right after lunch, the nurse came over to me and gave me some papers. She said, “Start reading these. I’ll be back to talk to you about them shortly.” They were my discharge papers. I could have cried of happiness.
“I’m good to walk.”
My uncle brought my mom to the hospital so she could drive me home in my car. It was nice to see familiar faces and I was very overwhelmed by the sensation of sunlight and fresh air. I was still coughing a lot, but I looked at the man who wheeled me to the curb and said, “I’m good to walk to my car.” Although it took a lot of effort, it was refreshing to do something so simple as take a few steps outside on my own.
Now, a few weeks later, I’m doing much, much better. The cough has lingered, but it’s fading away as the days pass. I’m getting stronger and taking short walks in my neighborhood. Even after a 30-minute walk, I need a three-hour nap, but I know I’m making progress. I’ve tried singing a few times, and it gets easier each time. I know a few people trying to arrange virtual choirs over Zoom, and I’m hoping to be strong enough to join one soon.
After this whole experience, I feel a lot of gratitude. I’m thankful for the healthcare workers, the first responders, who helped me heal. My father is one of them–he’s a pharmacist–and now I’ve gotten a glimpse of what these medical professionals are doing behind the scenes. I appreciate them to no end and it’s thanks to them that I’m back home and feeling so much better.