Lady Windermere to the Rescue
I opened my eyes and for the first time in probably 16 days and realized I was sleeping on my side. A luxury. I could see the bottle of Tylenol, thermometer, and oximeter through the clear half drunken bottle of Glacier Freeze Gatorade on my bed stand. Was it Lady Windermere who had paid me another visit?
I realize not everyone is as fortunate as I to have a best friend who is a doctor that specializes in pulmonary disease and internal medicine at New York-Presbyterian-Columbia University. Emily and I have been friends since our daughters were three and we met at the playground some 20 years ago. With perfectly coiffed chestnut hair and a slender build, she makes the best eggplant rollatini this side of the Atlantic, and is the on-call doctor to me, my family, and our group of friends, 24/7. With all of us, it’s a wonder Emily still has time for a thriving practice to boot.
My personal saga began as I plodded through Grand Central Station one mid-December morning. My cell vibrated. Even without reading, I could see the text “call when you can” was important. Funny, I’d never known Emily to be in touch before 9 am. My stomach was tight as I pressed her number. Maybe I instinctively knew, or perhaps it was my telltale cough that erupted from down under.
The cough had been raging for over two weeks, but to my dismay didn’t seem to be getting any better. It was during my trip to visit my family in Minneapolis over Thanksgiving I finally gave in and felt the need to involve my fine doctor friend. Her first thought was to make sure I was equipped with the right inhaler for my allergies. After a couple of days of no improvement, Emily sent me to get a chest x-ray upon my return. I reckoned that’s what she was calling about.
She got right to the point. “Susie, I just read the results from your x-ray and there’s a foggy area which looks like you have a case of walking pneumonia. I’ve called in a prescription for you. I also want you to come in for a CT scan one month from today. I’ll have my assistant call to set things up. You’re going to be okay!”
Was there worry in her voice? I was trying to process – especially that last sentence. I guess my silence prompted her to say it again. “You’re going to be okay!” I knew I would – after all I was in the best of hands. But why did Dr. Emily feel the need to reassure me not once but twice?
I took my meds and things improved. The holidays came and went. My children were home. The cough was put to rest. Mid-January came, along with the CT scan and another diagnosis from Emily, “You’re fine, but I can see you have a case of mild lung disease called Lady Windermere Syndrome. It’s probably why you’re always coughing. I actually specialize in that too.” So once again, from pneumonia to Lady Windermere Syndrome, I was being treated by an expert in lung disease.
Named after the main character in Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lady Windermere is a Victorian socialite who accuses her husband of having an affair with a woman, who’s actually her mother – but she doesn’t know it’s her mother, because the mother has all along been presumed dead. All’s well when the mother leaves town without her daughter ever knowing the truth, and Lady Windermere ends up back with her husband. Sounds like quite the bodice ripper.
Unfortunately, the plot of the disease is not as exciting, and feels more like a bodice tightening than a bodice ripper. Despite her fancy name, Lady Windermere is not a welcome guest. And her namesake syndrome is a lung condition that is part of the Mycobacterium Avium Complex (MAC). Note: for easy purposes, just understand that “bacterium” is involved. These bacteria can be traced, and perhaps ingested from dirt, water, or even a filthy shower head. Eew. It is not contagious. The name was inspired when bacteria were found in the lungs of several white, thin, elderly women – who akin to Lady Windermere, would probably have quelled the urge to cough up sputum. Ahem. In other words, instead of having a phlegm filled coughing attack in public, a “proper” woman would somehow hold her white gloves to her lips and quietly suppress her cough, thus not clearing the bacteria.
A Tilt-A-Whirl on Steroids
Although not quite as well-mannered as Lady Windermere, I was still happy the cough had subsided, and all was status quo. That is until the outbreak of COVID-19 hit New York in the Spring of 2020. Now a new worry set in. Let’s see, I’m 59 years old… but do I now have an underlying condition? The answer came to me like a Tilt-A-Whirl on steroids before I had the chance to discuss my concern with my physician.
I’d already been home bound for nine days since last seeing my colleague who tested positive for the virus. I was feeling confident – out of the woods from the typical “common five days between transmission.” But something seriously kicked in while brushing my teeth one Saturday morning. The room was spinning so intensely, I had to hang on to the edge of the sink. I felt nauseous, clammy. My stomach was queasy, and my heart was racing. Was I having a… panic attack?
I went online. At that point, only fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath were the noted symptoms of the coronavirus, so I chalked my vertigo and GI problems up to a bad bug. Nevertheless, that bug would stay with me for over three weeks to come. Fortunately, so would Emily too.
Days 1 – 2
After the first eight second flash of vertigo I felt okay, just a bit off kilter – like I was driving through fog. However somehow nothing tasted or smelled the least bit appetizing.
Woke up feeling so dizzy I couldn’t bring myself to sit up. My heart was palpitating. I could hear my ears thumping, putting pressure on my sinuses – especially on the bridge of my nose. I was so nauseous I couldn’t get out of bed. My head was buzzing and my eyes were watering uncontrollably. My family was feeding me Cheerios, pasta, and – what I was craving most – black olives from the can. Salt.
I was eating laying down, wishing there was a straw that would go from my glass to my mouth while I drank, and I was trying my hardest not to spin. I could feel the heat of the bug as it burrowed its way from my cheekbones, down my neck glands, and into my chest.
To wake panting like a dog, chest tight, and heart racing at 4 o’clock in the morning is not a pleasant way to start the day. All along I’d been falsely comforted by the fact that the two most significant symptoms I kept hearing about – fever and cough – were not part of my journey. Consequently, I couldn’t be sure it was even the virus. I managed to prop myself up and sat shivering, waiting till 7:01am to ping Emily: Hello! Woke up at 4 and am having bouts of shortness of breath… and heart palpitations… seems to come and go. No fever… no cough… but I am clammy and shaky and feel flushed… don’t know what I have but how will I know if things are taking a turn for the worse?
A Facetime House Call
Emily Facetimed me within a minute. She was calm and said I “looked good and had color in my cheeks.” I pointed to where I had consistent pain – like a subtle black and blue mark – around my chest area. Then minutes after our conversation came Emily’s text: Prescriptions are in. Also, you want to get an oximeter to measure your oxygen levels. Make sure it comes with a battery. If not get the battery too. It’s a small device about three inches long.
I sent my gallant husband out hunting and gathering. Three drug stores and two prescriptions later he found one oximeter left at Walgreens. It was an overpriced $69.99, but it came equipped with a pulse reader and an app for relaxation techniques.
An oximeter is a little device that you clamp on to the tip of your finger. It measures your blood oxygen levels and helps monitor shortness of breath. Normal range is 95-99%. At one point my blood oxygen saturation was 93%, but it never went below the critical point of 90%. This contraption served as my teddy bear throughout the rest of my ordeal. My finger could ultimately clue me in if things were going askew.
The prescriptions consisted of antibiotics and an inhaler. Miraculously, after the first dose of medicine I felt significantly better. I was able to eat sitting up. Bend my knees. And never again did I experience an episode like that morning where I was left breathless for 10 minutes.
Days 6 – 7
Nights were hard. I would wake spinning every time I inadvertently rolled over in my sleep. I was anxious. I hope I don’t pass this onto my family! Will my cough come back? Will I end up on a ventilator like my friend in Minnesota? Thanks to Emily I was managing at home, but under normal circumstances I’d have thought myself sick enough to warrant a trip to the ER.
Days 8 – 9
I made an effort to get dressed and comb my hair each morning. The stairs were daunting, so I stayed in my sequestered room and milled around there. My exercise routine consisted of getting myself out of bed, hiking to the bathroom, and running a bath. I was sitting up more often at the makeshift desk consisting of a bistro chair and card table. I also was able to take in a lot of chicken soup. Mealtime was a relished activity. I ate by myself but kept my door open so I could listen to normal conversation coming from the kitchen below. Not even Lady Windermere would consider that eavesdropping.
Days 10 – 11
Woke up to another racing heart. Thanks to the oximeter by my side, I knew my pulse was at 124. I let Emily know: Still managing symptoms ok. No cough… but pulse is a little high today… high 80s and 90s… even into low 100s.
As always, Emily was quick to respond: I’m not surprised. We are seeing slight relapse around day 10 which you are probably at. It passes in a day or two. Might also have some chest tightness. Nothing to be concerned about. Just make sure you stay hydrated. Helps bring pulse down. Again, her comforting words and heads up on what to expect were pulling me through.
Still no cough?
Little did I know that my good friend Sandra, a GP in Manhattan, was home from vacation and had been in quarantine the past couple of weeks. She called nonchalantly to check in. Born and raised in Brazil, I can always count on her to see things from a worldly perspective. “You know,” she warned me, “you have a couple of days left. Be patient. Americans are not patient. I see it all the time. They think they are going to get better in three days and they’re not. This coronavirus is hard, and you have to work through it.” To date, Sandra has only sent one patient to the hospital. She too believes in walking her patients through. She also had a helpful hint. “Add one t-spoon of salt and one tablespoon of sugar to your water as Gatorade can sometimes exacerbate your diarrhea.”
Emily Facetimed me. She was surprised, “Are you in bed still?” I was. My head was buzzing. “Susie – get out of bed! Take an allergy pill. Run laps around your house. Get some fresh air into your lungs. You need to move. You need to recondition yourself.” That was the last time Emily ever found me in bed.
I went downstairs and emptied the dishwasher.
Excited to wake up on my side for a change, I noticed I had trouble opening my crusty eyes. Just another insult to injury – conjunctivitis. It was as if my body had collected every virus I’d ever been exposed to, only to unleash them all in one fell swoop.
Days 17 – 19
First time out and around the block I couldn’t walk a straight line. But things improved with each passing step till I was up to multiple walks a day. It didn’t matter the weather. It helped to be outside and just breathe.
Vacuumed the entire house.
GI tract resolved.
Three weeks had come and gone. All the while I couldn’t help but wonder if I actually heard it coming. Two nights before Day 1, I told my husband I could hear the trains chugging along their tracks. He was impressed since the train station is over a mile away. Unbeknownst to me, something must have already been brewing in my ears.
Recently my husband felt woozy. I panicked and insisted he get tested. I called the Westchester COVID Hotline and within 48 hours they called with an appointment at a drive-thru testing locale in New Rochelle the next day. He was given a confirmation number and told to wear a mask.
My husband described the coronavirus test center as something out of a Stephen King novel. There were troops everywhere. Police cars defined the area. People in space suits shouting directions into a megaphone so you could hear through closed car windows. “Place your ID face out of your closed window. And do NOT open your window!” Things ran smoothly until he got to the front of the line. They couldn’t find his record. He left. Minutes later, as he was filling the car with gas, a call came in from North Carolina to let him know they found his confirmation after all. So back he went. I am forever grateful that his test was negative.
Perhaps he’d already had it? No doubt this silent killer manifests itself differently – from a sniffle in one person to pneumonia in another. There’s a side of me that believes my 23-year-old daughter had it as early as January 3, when tests on a fever of almost 104º, chills, fatigue, and a sore throat came back negative for Strep and the flu. If things were already rampant in China and brewing in Italy, they must have been percolating in New York by then too.
And a couple of days ago, I couldn’t help but ask Emily, “So do you think I had that nasty virus?” Her response was nothing short of practical. “Pretty sure. When the blood test comes out we will check.” Still, I can’t help but wonder… from dizziness to GI problems to numbing head fog to severe fatigue to chest tightening to shortness of breath to night sweats to shakiness to heart palpitations to conjunctivitis… maybe it’s only Lady Windermere who will ever know the secret to that. After all, a cough never crossed my lips.
Gloves off. Wash hands! Tea anyone?