Paul Smart: Still viral, but getting better

I’ve been fielding a lot of e-mails and texts expressing concern for my family’s health this past week. I’ve also been working through the final stages of the Influenza A I was diagnosed as having, involving use of an inhaler, a Z-Pack, lots of liquids and sleep. Everyone I know was freaking out because we’re the only people they know who’ve brushed up against the scary novel coronavirus, Covid 19.

Guess we took a frequent-flyer vacation to Northern Italy at the wrong time.

I’ve learned a great deal about how little we know about viruses, epidemics and pandemics, and the ways in which we now react to the news we’re always reading from the devices in our hands.

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I’m home, still sick. Two weeks into my doctor-described bout with influenza, I’m feeling weak, hurting a bit every time I cough up foul-tasting brownish gunk from deep in my lungs. I’m completely worn out each time I head back upstairs to my cool bedroom with its tall ceilings, serene marble fireplace, old family furniture, and piles of music to listen to. I read, write, and try to find those places in which I and so many others once found refuge whenever we feel ill.

I was told by the doctor and nurses that I saw at Albany Memorial Hospital that I’d been cleared of coronavirus after I went to their emergency room on my GP’s orders on February 28. My wife Fawn and son Milo were cleared to go back to work and school respectively at that same time.

It now turns out that I was never officially given the coronavirus test.

Just stay at home

Our son’s private alternative school down the street, on whose board my wife serves, needed to know whether we had been infected when we were abroad. I told Fawn that had we been infectious the hospital wouldn’t have released us all back into life a week earlier. It was assumed that having one virus precluded having others. I also assumed that they’d “cleared me” because they’d tested for the disease everyone’s been reading and worrying about. Since I had the flu, they said, my wife and kid had also had the flu.

When I called the hospital this past Friday, I was told I was never given a coronavirus test. And there had been no record made of my family’s clearances. I explained how my doctor had told me they followed all the Centers for Disease Control protocols, but that they had not wanted to contact the feds because of the unknown protocols involving quarantine. They didn’t want to get involved with bureaucratic overreaction. 

The hospital folks said I should call the county Department of Health and gave me a special phone number for the supervisory nurse there on weekends. There was music playing while I was on hold: a dirge-like mix of funereal drums and bells brightened momentarily by eerie electronic blips, followed by an even more somber orchestral adagio with muted percussion.

Eventually I got through to someone who had nurse Mary get back to me. There was no documentation for coronavirus testing for our family, nor for anyone else in Albany, for that matter. I probably did just have flu. Same for Fawn, even though her tests showed no such results and had been sent on to the feds for further tests.

“She probably just had a false negative,” nurse Mary said about my wife’s tests for Influenza A and B. She was asked to get the tests before returning to work after a week away. Fawn had been put under “mandatory self-quarantine” at home. “As long as you’re getting better, just stay at home and try not to expose people.”

Expose them to what?

My own doctor mailed me a note saying I could go back to working with the public at my library position by Monday. (The library system put in a new ban on staff handling books or library cards without use of Lysol wipes and plastic gloves, plus other draconian protocols.)

A life of self-isolation

The next day, Fawn also spoke to Mary Brummagyn, the county health supervising nurse I’d been speaking with. It hardly mattered whether I’d been tested for coronavirus the week before, she said. The federal Centers for Disease Control, which our president visited wearing one of his campaign hats last week, was changing its testing protocols every six hours. Everything was mutating. 

Nurse Mary has stopped by the house daily ever since, bringing wipes, hand sanitizer and scratchy industrial-weight tissues. She told Fawn that her nostril swabs had been sent for Covid 19 testing. She’d be back to her about next steps, including a possible two more weeks of “mandatory self-isolation” within the coming days. In the meantime,  could Fawn answer a daily email questionnaire about her symptoms?

So we’ve been home. I’ve been in the cool room with the high ceilings and light filtering through louvered window shades behind velvet drapes, listening to Paul Desmond, reading Georges Simenon, and doing all I could not to read about the governor’s state of emergency, political charges of incompetence regarding tests and protocols, and the new quarantining of all Northern Italy. 

Fawn’s been down on the couch, the better to keep from coughing fits, reading all she can about the virus and politics, watching superhero television shows. Our son Milo’s been fine. He broke his phone yesterday, though, forcing me to venture out to the mall for a few hours to get it fixed. We think that no one under 15 had tested positive for the coronavirus, unless something else was involved. 

Death and survival

Getting a bad cold, or the flu, used to be as common to wintertime as blizzards. You’d simply have to spend time home, which in the Catskills at that time meant reading and watching videos. The idea that what was ailing you might also be crashing the economy was as foreign, for generations, as the idea of remembered ring numbers on a party line are to those who now maintain dozens of passwords in their heads.

“There’s a lot of gray,” nurse Mary told Fawn when she visited this morning. “People want black and white.”

I’ve been riding out a line with something mysterious tugging at its end. Watching classic films, reading deeply thought-out books, listening to symphonies. Beyond my symptoms, I’ve linked my intimations of mortality to my parents’ recent deaths.

My mother fought cancer for a year, darkly angry at the way it entered and disrupted her life. How and why, she kept asking? She never could accept illness of any kind. It was an aberration, not part of our lives.

My father stopped going to doctors after his stroke left him apartment-bound. He reread the books he loved, rewatched his favorite movies, listened to the same pieces of music daily, looked out his window. He grew impatient with life.

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That thing tugs again. There are endless stories of death, of seemingly distant diseases that reach into our lives, of moments of challenge from which we rise to a new appreciation of life. 

Something seems to rise in the dark shadows at the edge of my vision, outside my shaded windows. People used to make fun of my dives into melancholic art whenever I felt I was about to get sick. I enjoyed my illnesses too much.

The music plays out. The light dims a bit more. I drink some room-temperature water and feel phlegm loosen deep within my chest. The dog joins the cats on the bed beside me. 

As I curl into the darkness, I hear birdsong outside. I’m certain that before long I’ll be better, test results or no. Life is life.