My muscles ache, my joints are on fire, and the fatigue is bone crushing. I’ve been down this road before, but I had hoped it was just part of my past.
Now, eight months after contracting COVID, I can only hope it’s not a permanent part of my future.
How it all began…
To clarify, I had been in good health before I caught the virus in March., but it had been an uphill battle to get there. In 2018, two weeks before moving from California to the UK to study musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism. In short, one of the four glands that sits behind the thyroid gland and which regulates calcium levels in the body had become enlarged. I later learned from my surgeon that my enlarged gland had likely been growing for ten years. It explained why I’d been struggling so much with my pain and energy ever since about junior year of high school.
Finally feeling better and getting my life on track
With only two weeks before a move overseas, I didn’t want to have surgery right away. I spent the next three months falling asleep in my classes. I felt like I was constantly on the verge of passing out, and fighting the horrific pain in my body. My heart rate always felt like that of a scared rabbit. I still don’t really know how I got through those three months.
My mum was really my saviour: she set up my surgery at the Norman Parathyroid Center in Tampa, Florida. That December, on my winter break, my mum and I met in Florida and I had the enlarged gland removed. It was over an inch long (they’re supposed to be the size of a grain of rice)! The surgery was a miracle. Less than a week later, I felt well enough to celebrate the holidays at Walt Disney World. Within six months, I felt a great deal better. A year later, I was a brand new person.
I couldn’t find toilet paper but COVID found me.
Flash forward to March of this year, I was in my second year of my program, and I was feeling good. I’d been reading about COVID-19 and there were more and more cases in Scotland. However, it didn’t feel like there was an immediate cause for concern. At the beginning of the month, I went out with classmates to celebrate my birthday…my last normal night out for who knows how long! My mum came to visit me and we went to see The Lion King in Edinburgh. A few days later, cases seemed to explode in Glasgow, and my school shut down. My mum and I scrambled to find a flight back to Los Angeles amid rumours that the airlines would be suspending overseas travel.
We made it back, and almost immediately I developed a terrible sore throat, muscle aches, and a high fever.
I hoped against hope that it was just tonsillitis. My doctor prescribed antibiotics over the phone, just in case. Naturally, they didn’t work because I was sick with a virus! I also quarantined from my mum. That was the scariest part, because she’s in a high risk category and we had been sharing food and a very small space just days before. I live in fear of anything happening to her, and so those days waiting to see if she’d develop symptoms were torturous. I’m so grateful that she is okay. Still, at the time, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just tonsillitis. I just couldn’t see where I could have picked up the virus.
A couple of weeks later, I wanted to see my ENT. He was requiring COVID tests for patients before seeing them, so I got swabbed in an alleyway in Beverly Hills and went home. At that point, I had an intermittent low grade fever and a sore throat. That night we received the phone call that I had tested positive.
Like a combination of the worst hangover you ever had and mono. On steroids.
I spent most of March and April sleeping. I couldn’t get enough sleep no matter how hard I tried. Acid reflux and constant sinus and throat pain plagued me. I’ve seen many people online say that COVID is just like a bad flu and that not many people die from it. This infuriates me for several reasons. I was one of the lucky people who didn’t need hospitalisation, but at the time of this writing, there are 69,455 people in hospital with COVID in the US. These severe cases have been found in young, previously healthy people as well as the more immunocompromised population.
Days turn into weeks and months and you don’t get better
The other thing that bothers me is the assumption that death is the only negative consequence of this virus. That as long as a person survives the virus, they can just go back to business as usual and everything is happily ever after. That is wishful thinking. It’s taken months, but the media is just now starting to recognise the experience of those known as “Long Haulers”. Not distance truckers (although some might be), but COVID survivors, these people experience a range of symptoms months after their initial exposure to the virus. I happen to be one of them. I was diagnosed in March and didn’t get a negative test until July.
Now, nine months later from my original diagnosis, I’m experiencing many of the same complaints produced by my hyperparathyroidism. The difference here is that medical tests are providing no diagnosis. I’m lucky enough to have no brain, lung, or heart damage, like so many others have. Also, I’m lucky enough to have a medical care team who believes me when I say it’s not all in my head. I’m a member of a group called Survivor Corps on Facebook, which was founded by fellow “Long-Hauler” Diana Berrent, and it’s thanks to her that we have people starting to listen. There are thousands of us in the group, and many of us provided information in a survey report for the University of Indiana School of Medicine which documented 98 different symptoms experienced.
So, take COVID seriously.
According to the experts, post-COVID syndrome may end up affecting up to 30% of young adults who recover from even very mild cases. It’s something to do with how the young adult’s healthy immune system goes into overdrive and can’t settle down. I am planning to return to school next year and I’m determined not to let this derail all my hopes and dreams. But, believe me, you do not want to catch COVID and maybe have this happen to you. Wear your masks. Don’t go to parties. And get the vaccine as soon as you can.
Caroline Smith is a performer living in Los Angeles after spending two years in Glasgow studying musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She’ll be returning there next year to complete her degree. Her interests outside of performing include travel, vintage fashion and beauty, learning languages, and reading.