Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
A few days after flying home to New Mexico from New York City, “Jill” began experiencing leg and joint pain, nausea and fatigue.
Her husband and travel companion was not feeling well either, suffering from chills and likening his condition at the time to a “mild flu.”
When he called a friend one night to cancel plans, the friend recommended the couple, both in their late 60s, be tested for the novel coronavirus.
On March 12 – about a week after their flight and a day after the state of New Mexico announced its first cases of the disease – the pair were tested at an Albuquerque urgent care.
“I wanted to get tested to rule it out, because I thought ‘This can’t be coronavirus because it’s not that severe.’ I just mildly felt crappy,” he said. “I was really surprised 24 hours later when I got the call that we were positive.”
After testing positive, the couple, who the Journal is identifying by the pseudonyms “Jill” and “Alan,” have been quarantining at their Albuquerque-area home. They spoke to the Journal on the condition of anonymity due to the stigma surrounding COVID-19. Their symptoms graduated to “severe” but never required hospitalization and have mostly now dissipated.
Though they are still unusually tired and uncertain about when they should end their isolation, the couple said in a phone interview Saturday they believe they have beat the virus.
“We’re beyond it. We made it,” Alan said. “We’re alive. We’re going to be OK.”
Nausea, gastro problems
As of Saturday, New Mexico had a total of 208 confirmed coronavirus, or COVID-19, cases and two related deaths.
State officials said New Mexico’s earliest cases were all tied to travel, though they have since detected “community spread,” meaning residents have become infected without knowing where they encountered the virus.
Jill and Alan believe they contracted the virus either in New York City – which has become a hot spot for the disease – or perhaps during their trip home.
Some with coronavirus may experience only mild symptoms, according to health experts, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and older and those with serious underlying medical conditions have a higher risk for serious illness.
Jill said she has autoimmune issues. Alan is a cancer survivor, though he never had chemotherapy.
The couple say the last three weeks have been physically and psychologically challenging.
They have had middle-of-the-night fever spikes, coughing, pain and fatigue so overwhelming that they sometimes lacked the energy to eat.
“We could barely walk from the bedroom to the living room and we’d just lie around all day long,” Jill said.
Alan slept as many as 18 hours a day and has lost 13 pounds.
He said all underlying body pains felt 10 times worse early in the virus’ course and he experienced “ridiculous” headaches.
When people discuss the disease, Jill said “they don’t stress the nausea and the gastro problems you get – I think that was a big one.”
The most often cited COVID-19 symptoms are fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
The couple say they stayed alert for serious respiratory distress. Alan frequently self-tested his lungs by taking deep breaths and making sure he could hold them for 10 seconds.
They say they never experienced serious breathing difficulty, though the stress sometimes made it hard to tell.
“The anxiety of having the disease alone gives you shortness of breath, so there’s a fine balance between calming yourself down so that you can breathe and actually having shortness of breath,” Jill said.
A network of friends
With most of their family out of state and staying in touch via video calls, a network of local friends helped with day-to-day needs. They ensured the couple had food by leaving groceries or cooked meals outside their front door.
Many also provided medical guidance.
The couple said they maintain regular contact with the epidemiology division of the New Mexico Department of Health through daily phone calls, but medical follow-through was left to their primary care doctor, who offered little insight or assistance. The couple instead communicated regularly with friends who are doctors, with one such friend writing the prescription Jill used to get an oxygen concentrator that she used at night as a precautionary measure.
They say they focused on hydration, took Vitamin C and other vitamin supplements and used Tylenol for pain. Originally prescribed ibuprofen for her pain, Jill switched to Tylenol after a widely circulated French health official’s warning that ibuprofen could be dangerous for coronavirus patients. The World Health Organization has since said it does not warn against ibuprofen “based on currently available information.”
While the couple say they proactively alerted everyone they had contact with prior to their positive test, they said the state went through its own notification process and told those potentially exposed to stay home for 14 days.
A few of Alan’s closest contacts have since undergone testing and, to his relief, they have tested negative.
“I went through this whole guilt thing, like ‘Oh, my god, did I spread this around?’ And that was a horrible feeling,” he said.
They say they are fortunate to live in New Mexico, as very ill friends in New York have struggled to get tests and test results.
Safe to leave the house?
The couple say they feel better but are uncertain when they are safe to leave the house.
Initially, Jill said, the state told them they could leave quarantine after taking two follow-up tests following the resolution of symptoms. Now they say the guidance is to end quarantine 72 hours after symptoms go away, but they say that is difficult to gauge.
“You’re so tired and weak after going through this. You don’t know if it’s a symptom or just that your body has been through this war, so it’s hard to determine when your last symptom is,” Jill said.
A state Department of Health spokesman said patients are cleared from isolation when they meet CDC-established standards. That means it has been at least three days since their fever has resolved without fever-reducing medication and they’ve had improvement in respiratory symptoms, including cough; and more than a week has passed since their symptoms first appeared.
They say they are not planning to leave the house any time soon, as there is little reason given everything that is closed.
When they were feeling their worst, they were too exhausted to read or watch TV but they have since been able to resume those activities. Jill said she has used the time at home to finish “The Americans,” while Alan has enjoyed “Better Call Saul.”
Jill said she looks forward to being able to go for walks again, but at least they can still see the sky and the mountains from their home.
Alan said he knows not everyone has the resources and networks that they have and he still worries about people who are homeless and others facing this pandemic.
“We know we’re the lucky ones,” Alan said.