HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: COVID-19 Diaries: Riding the ‘Rona-Coaster’
On Monday I was ready to jump in my car and go play a 3 setter of tennis. That’s how good I felt. I could run a small country, but because I don’t have one, I ran about the flat instead obsessively cleaning all the bits and bobs that were bugging me while I lay corpse-like in the midst of having been diagnosed with COVID-19.
I wiped down the light switches, really gave the kitchen counters some elbow grease and shined the glass doors until they were crystal clear. Had I finally reached the end of the 'Rona-Coaster' after riding the wave for more than 30 days? It sure did feel like it, but then Wednesday happened.
I woke up with the usual body pain that stretches all the way down from my neck to my calves. I thought nothing of it. It’s just one of those days, surely, maybe I slept in a weird position or something? Upon rising from the bed, and after a few steps toward the kitchen, I realised I had a constant pounding in my head. It was mild, but it was making itself very present. I still thought nothing of it. In fact, I ignored it for as long as I could because I absolutely refused to believe that there could possibly anything wrong with my body again. I’d passed begin, collected my vitamins and was on a new path round the game-board of my life filled with empty estates, to take adventures, somersault… walk.
It was not to be. The pounding got heavier and louder and more painful. It took over my head until I felt as though my actual brain was banging against my skull. I couldn’t isolate it. Was it my temples, the back of my head? Was it coming from the top or the front? My face was sore, my ears were ringing, and all of this reached its peak at about 10pm. It started at 6am. That’s a long time for a head monster to grow. No painkillers could decapitate this torture. I couldn’t lie down. It made the pounding worse. I sat up and rocked like a desperate child and even resorted to taking a sleeping pill to hopefully pass out and wake up renewed. Nothing worked.
Over the course of my life I’ve had several illnesses and surgeries. I can honestly say that nothing, none of those – not encephalitis, not shoulder and wrist surgery, nothing compared to what I felt that I night. I would rather have a molar knocked out of my mouth with a chisel and hammer and zero anaesthetic than ever have that mighty migraine – if that’s what it was – ever again, and I say that with great confidence!
Ten to 14 days, right? That’s all it was supposed to take. About two weeks ago, however, I’d heard of a new term – a new… diagnosis… the “COVID long haulers”, medically known as post-COVID syndrome.
Obviously my body filled with dread and I already felt like I was going mad because no one quite understood why I was sick, but not sick, but very sick. Still. So I did some more research and found several support groups on Facebook for us long-haulers and joined them all.
Like I said before, this is a lonely disease and when you realise it doesn’t seem to ever be going away, even when you’re post viral, the disease gets lonelier. I’m not generally a forum kind of person, but I have to admit that it’s really nice to not feel crazy and know there are other people out there you can talk to because they’re going through the same thing as you, and it’s a thing no one has answers to. There’s no point going to the doctor for each new symptom that crops up because they just don’t know.
Epidemiologists, scientists and others in the medical field have now started to study this post-viral … virus.
A really clued-up friend of mine informed me that there are speculations that fitter people tend to fall into the long-hauler category a bit more. Other research I’ve read says that those who are not hospitalised tend to suffer from a protracted illness a lot more. According to a piece in the Financial Times, University of Oxford Professor John Geddes says that the longevity of the illness is “likely to be caused by the virus getting into the nerve cells of the brain. Others suggest that an elevated immune response to the virus may be damaging the cells in key parts of the body”.
While it’s reassuring that research is being done and professionals in the industry are really scratching their heads trying to figure this out, what’s not reassuring is that the answers remain inconclusive and many of us are faced with friends or family members who simply don’t believe that we still experience waves of fogginess, fatigue, body pains, headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath, even though we haven’t suffered from a lung infection bad enough to require any sort of ventilation.
This middle-ground of the pandemic is a grey area filled with disbelief and a lot of symptoms that fall out of the standardised categories of what has been defined as COVID-19 symptoms. It’s hell and limbo at the same time and I have no idea how long I have to exist in this purgatory.
The only neurological condition officially listed in the description for COVID-19 symptoms by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a loss of taste or smell. But a Body Politic survey revealed that many long haulers suffer from a wider range of neurological symptoms which have not been officially categorised.
I experienced no loss of taste or smell, but severe brain fog and concentration issues – I couldn’t even lie in bed like a zombie and watch Netflix. I have the occasional coughing spell, even though my lungs have been cleared by a doctor several times. And I have yet to experience a night or a nap in more than 30 days that comes without delirium and hallucinations. I have never been a sleep talker, but every night I deliver a Ted Talk. One of them was an in-depth speech on pre-nup agreements. Pre-nup agreements? I often hear my phone ring and turn to answer it, or hear my wife calling me when she’s not even home. I wake and sleep and wake and sleep, but never rest.
My ticket has been stubbed. When will the ride end? Oh, by the way, it’s 24 hours later. I still have the headache.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.