It’s past 8 on Friday night and my immediate future is at the mercy of three Q-tips and two vials of blood heading to a laboratory. The Q-tips carry a sample that was taken from my nose and another from my throat to test if I have influenza or coronavirus.
Four days ago, when I received an email from the organizers of the conference where I spent four days in New Orleans, I hand sanitized two friends with whom I was having dinner. I was told that one of the conference attendees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
For the first time I don’t feel the freezing cold of hospitals. Stretching my neck back shoots pain down my chest as if it’s splitting in half. My germs must have flooded the bed, the floor, in short, the isolation room I’m in. My cough has multiplied since I was ordered to put on the white mask. The fever had been at 99.9 for two days, but now dropped to 97.
“If my mother finds out that I’m here because of the coronavirus, she’ll die of fear,” I think to myself.
“My son doesn’t know. How do I explain it to him? He’s alone in Florida and he’ll be nervous,” are the thoughts hammering at me, adding to my throbbing headache.
“This is a heavy cold. This is a heavy cold,” I repeat to myself, like a mantra.
I got to the emergency room of a hospital in Caguas a few minutes ago. The Health Department — through its epidemiologists — should have contacted the hospital staff to meet me with the necessary precautions.
I try to hide my condition, but the cough betrays me in front of the three or four patients in the waiting room. The security guard had already ordered me to put on a mask.
When I go outside to cough, I am ordered to enter the triage cubicle for the routine evaluation protocol.
The nurse asks me: “Why are you here?”
Another nurse is in charge of taking my temperature — which had already dropped — my blood pressure, which was a little low, and asking me if I had traveled to China. “No, but for the past 15 days I have been to New York, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, where a person who attended the same conference I was in tested positive for the virus.”
“This is a heavy cold. This is a heavy cold,”. My brother, my sister-in-law … shit. How do I explain it to them?” I reason in my head.
The nurse points me to the isolation room, repeating over and over: “don’t take off your mask.” Although she sprays alcohol on her hands several times, I start to worry that she doesn’t have gloves or a mask on.
Not knowing I could have been exposed, last Tuesday I had dinner with friends in a Mexican restaurant. “How do I explain to them that I am now in an isolation room, because I have the symptoms of the disease that is making headlines around the world?” I breathe.
I want to hug the doctor when he comes into my room. I don’t know how many blue gowns he’s wearing, but I get the impression that he must be sweating bullets. Only a little of his forehead is exposed, since his legs, feet and hands are completely protected.
“Am I in a scene from the movie Outbreak, the one about the Ebola epidemic?”
No, no, no. This is the protocol for any disease that requires isolation such as measles, tuberculosis … Doctors must wear masks, gloves, gowns and even cover their shoes.
“This is a heavy cold. This is a heavy cold,” I repeat to myself.
I set my gaze toward his yellow stethoscope. It looks like rubber, a toy. It will be disposable as soon as it touches my back and chest.
The table where the food tray goes is between us. Of course, there’s no food on it. He is standing and I am sitting on the edge of the bed. A white piece of paper with the five dates of my last trips is the check-mate move on the table. I touch the paper and he slowly leans back a little.
Would the writing on that paper be the final blow to send me into a hospital quarantine? I don’t want it. And my cough didn’t help, so I tried not to cough anymore. It was impossible. I was so tired.
The nurse came in just as wrapped up in blue gowns. She came to do the usual tests. She had three gloves on, she told me.
She inserts the long Q-tips into each nostril. It doesn’t hurt, but it bothers me as if I had lightly hit my nose. I shed a tear over the sensation, or was it over the uncertainty? Then the third goes straight to the throat.
“This is a heavy cold. This is a heavy cold,” I continue to serenade myself.
I fill out forms from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and another -I think- from the Health Department. Seriously, I’m very tired, and I want to go home.
“I have cleaned all the seats of the planes that I have boarded; I carry a hand sanitizer that has been drying my hands from using it so much; I rubbed alcohol on all the computers I used at the conference; I clean my phone all the time; I wash my hands as often as I can. I cleaned the shoes, I disinfected the suitcase I used, I washed the clothes as soon as I arrived in Puerto Rico,” I go over in my mind while I wait for the doctor.
“Everything’s fine,” he tells me after dressing again in his gowns, masks, gloves, stethoscope. How much money will be needed to pay for these materials? They have to throw them away again.
I tested negative for influenza. I have to wait 24 to 48 hours for the coronavirus result. The doctor orders me to remain in quarantine for 14 days at home. If I feel short of breath, I should return to the hospital immediately.
Finally, I get a better look at the nurse who took care of me through the windows of the two doors of the isolation room. She could be my daughter. At a six-foot distance, she shows me the route I should take to exit, while two of her colleagues block the route to prevent me from having contact with other people.
In less than 24 hours, I got a call letting me know that the test had come back negative. I take a deep breath, very deep. I laugh nervously. I realize that if I had been afraid it wasn’t for myself, but for my loved ones, for my relatives, my friends, my colleagues. I met people on Tuesday. How would I explain it to them?
I was lucky that the test was not sent to the CDC in the United States. It would have taken much longer. There have been days that the CDC has only been able to process less than 100 tests.
The isolation measures I took in this situation were more than correct. They were imperative. YOU MUST STAY HOME.
Suddenly, it’s inevitable to think about the doctor and nurses who took care of me during my brief stay in the emergency room, the epidemiologists, the hundreds of health professionals and workers exposed to this situation because of their jobs.
They put their lives at risk for others. How can they avoid kissing and hugging their relatives when they get home? How do they handle the stress of long working hours? How do they handle questions for which even the scientific world has no answers?
They’re true heroes. I just have a heavy cold”.