I never imagined a family vacation would lead to this.
When COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, first hit the news, it seemed like a disease that targeted only the sick and older adults. Many of my peers felt invincible since they were young and healthy.
I may look like the picture of health at 25 years old, but I have taken immunosuppressants for years to treat my Crohn’s disease.
Suddenly, I was in a group that was at a higher risk of complications from this new virus that some people were taking seriously, and others weren’t. As a fourth-year medical student about to start rotation in an emergency room, I was a little worried. But I never imagined I would actually be diagnosed with COVID-19.
This was all well before the nationwide self-quarantine went into effect. People were still going to work. Bars and restaurants were still open. There was no toilet paper shortage.
Nearly a year ago, my cousins planned a trip for early March to Costa Rica to celebrate our cousin’s upcoming wedding. When the trip finally rolled around, we thought there was little community spread and COVID-19 was mainly a disease of travelers an ocean away, so we did not cancel.
A group of 17 of us spent a wonderful long weekend learning to surf, riding ATVs up to a waterfall, and doing yoga on the beach. Little did we know, most of us would soon have COVID-19.
On our plane ride home, we learned that one of our cousins had direct contact with a friend who tested positive for COVID-19. Due to our potential exposure and international travel, we all decided to self-quarantine in our homes once we landed. My sister, Michelle, and I stayed in our childhood home instead of returning to our apartments.
Two days into our self-quarantine, Michelle came down with a low-grade fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, headaches, and eye pain. She said her skin felt sensitive as if every touch sent shocks or tingles throughout her body. This lasted for 2 days before she became congested and lost her sense of smell.
The following day, I developed a low-grade fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, and a bad sore throat. I ended up with ulcers in my throat that bled and a sharp headache, despite almost never getting headaches. I lost my appetite and soon became extremely congested to the point that no over-the-counter decongestant or neti pot provided any relief.
These symptoms were bothersome, but very mild compared to what we are now hearing about critically ill patients on ventilators. Although my energy was poor, I still was able to get out for a short walk most days and play games with my family.
Two days into the illness, I completely lost my sense of taste and smell, which made me think I had a sinus infection. The loss of sensation was so severe that I could not even detect pungent odors like vinegar or rubbing alcohol. The only thing I could taste was salt.
The next day, it was all over the news that loss of taste and smell were common symptoms of COVID-19. It was that very moment that I realized Michelle and I were likely fighting COVID-19, the disease that was claiming lives in both the young and the old.
Due to our travel history, symptoms, and my immunosuppression, Michelle and I qualified for COVID-19 testing in our state.
Because we have different doctors, we were sent to two different locations for testing. My dad drove me to the hospital parking garage where a brave nurse came over to my car window, wearing a full gown, N95 mask, eye protection, gloves, and a Patriots hat.
The test was a deep swab of both my nostrils that made my eyes water with discomfort. Seven minutes after arriving at the drive-through testing area, we were on our way home.
Michelle was tested at a different hospital that used a throat swab. Less than 24 hours later, she received a call from her physician that she tested positive for COVID-19. We knew that I was likely positive as well, and we were thankful that we had self-quarantined from the moment we stepped off the plane.
Five days after I was tested, I received a call from my physician that I was also positive for COVID-19.
Soon after, a public health nurse called with strict instructions to isolate ourselves at home. We were told to stay in our bedrooms, even for meals, and completely disinfect the bathroom after each use. We were also instructed to speak with this nurse daily about our symptoms until our isolation period ended.
A week into my illness, I developed chest pain and shortness of breath with exertion. Just climbing half a flight of stairs completely winded me. I could not take a deep breath without coughing. Part of me felt invincible because I’m young, relatively healthy, and on a biologic with more targeted, rather than systemic, immunosuppression.
Yet another part of me feared the respiratory symptoms. Every night for a week and a half, I would become flushed and my temperature would rise. I cautiously monitored my symptoms in case my breathing worsened, but they only improved.
Three weeks into the illness, the cough and congestion finally cleared, which excited me beyond belief. As the congestion disappeared, my sense of taste and smell started returning.
Michelle’s illness took a milder course, with her experiencing congestion and loss of smell for 2 weeks but no cough or shortness of breath. Our sense of smell and taste are now back to about 75 percent of normal. I lost 12 pounds, but my appetite is back in full force.
We are extremely grateful that Michelle and I made a full recovery, especially due to the uncertainty of my risk from taking a biologic. We later found out that most of our cousins on the trip also got sick with COVID-19, with various symptoms and durations of the disease. Thankfully, everyone fully recovered at home.
In a couple of weeks, I will receive my next infusion right on schedule. I did not have to stop my medication and risk a Crohn’s flare, and the medication did not seem to adversely affect my COVID-19 course.
Between Michelle and me, I experienced more symptoms and the symptoms lasted longer, but that may or may not be related to my immunosuppression.
The International Organization for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IOIBD) has created guidelines for medication during the pandemic. Most of the guidelines recommend staying on your current treatment and trying to avoid or taper prednisone if possible. As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns.
The silver lining for me is hopefully some immunity to the virus so I can join the forces and help my colleagues out on the front line.
Most of us that contract COVID-19 will completely recover. The scary part is we cannot always predict who will become critically ill.
We need to listen to everything the
At the same time, we should not live in fear. We need to continue to physically distance ourselves while remaining socially close, wash our hands well, and we will get through this together.
Jamie Horrigan is a fourth-year medical student just weeks away from starting her internal medicine residency. She is a passionate Crohn’s disease advocate and truly believes in the power of nutrition and lifestyle. When she is not taking care of patients at the hospital, you can find her in the kitchen. For some awesome, gluten-free, paleo, AIP, and SCD recipes, lifestyle tips, and to keep up with her journey, be sure to follow along on her blog, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.