By Tehmina Khan
It started on Saturday, or perhaps even earlier on Friday, twenty-eight days ago, with tiredness and an odd tenseness in my body, which I attributed to stress. My husband returned to our home in Toronto from Pakistan on Monday afternoon and went into quarantine in our guestroom. Our COVID-19 days had begun.
By Tuesday morning, I had a sore throat, a dry cough, severe body pain, diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps. I felt feverish though the thermometer gave a below average body temperature reading. My fever spells were followed by chills which set me shivering under a mountain of blankets. I made the terrible decision to get medical help.
I was worried because of COVID. The secretary at my doctor’s office asked me not to come in. My symptoms sounded too much like COVID and no one wanted to risk infection by seeing me.
I called Telehealth and got bounced around until a nurse finally told me to get tested. Our closest assessment centre was North York General Hospital. This is where I gave birth to my son. This is where I had an uterine embolization and two surgeries a few years back. I associate kindness with this hospital. I am familiar with its corridors.
My husband was busy with a work-related call in the basement when I decided to walk the five kilometres to the hospital. I didn’t want to expose him or anyone else to my germs. The walk was slow and exhausting and the hospital I arrived at was not the place I was familiar with. They were construction workers erecting a pavilion of sorts outside the emergency department. The inside of the department looked like a scene from a war zone.
The doctor who finally saw me, spoke to me for a long while. He told me that while I was exhibiting all the symptoms other than fever (I had taken Tylenol before embarking on my walk), I did not meet their testing criteria. I was not over 65, immune compromised, or an essential worker. He was honest and told me that they do not have enough kits and therefore are conserving them for those most at risk. His last sentence to me before walking out was: “You are witnessing history unfold.”
I returned home and my condition continued to worsen. My husband and I swapped rooms. I was quarantined in the guestroom from my husband and two teenage kids. I was not bored. The trials my body was putting me through were relentless and left no scope for boredom. Around the two-week mark of my sickness, I had two days of feeling much better. I heaved a sigh of relief and announced my return to the land of the living.
But I was wrong, and I rapidly grew weaker. I became confused. I began spending much of my time crying from sheer weakness. As I felt my strength ebbing, I became convinced that I would not survive. At times, despite the layering of Advil and Tylenol, my pain was such that I almost wished for death.
My mental health lay in shambles. I could no longer read or write. I stared blankly at the same paragraphs trying to decipher the meanings behind the words. I felt I was a burden. I was unable to care for myself. People called to commiserate with my husband for being stuck taking care of me. I wanted to somehow magically return to my parents’ home in Karachi, Pakistan, and my mother’s care where no one would consider me a burden.
It is a strange thing to become dangerous to your own loved ones. My husband and I sleep in separate rooms. My children and husband use one bathroom, while I use the other. My family maintains physical distance from me. The last time I experienced human touch was more than three weeks ago. For the first two weeks of my husband’s return from Pakistan, our children did the groceries because both my husband and myself were under quarantine. I suffered guilt pangs knowing that we were placing our children in harm’s way in order to keep us fed.
Now, that my husband’s quarantine is over, he does the weekly grocery run. He and our kids also do all of the housework because I am unable to do more than take the few steps it takes to make it to the washroom. People constantly call to tell me to thank God for His blessings. I wonder if they are simply trying to take advantage of my weakened state. They seem more interested in scoring brownie points with their God than in my well being because why else would you use this opportunity to intone God to a non-believer?
I eventually made a second trip to the Emergency department. It was a mistake caused by the burning in my chest. My family doctor the day before had prescribed an antibiotic and assured me that I should go to Emergency to get help if feeling worse. This time, I could barely manage the few steps into our car. I dissolved into tears at the hospital. I had trouble following the nurses’ instructions. They tested me for COVID. I was put on a drip and told that I was severely dehydrated. They did an EKG and a chest x-ray. Both were clear.
By the time I left, it seemed that the attending doctor was just annoyed by my presence. She seemed to have decided on her own that my dehydration was caused by ongoing diarrhoea though I had informed her right in the beginning that my diarrhoea only lasted the first two days of my sickness. She lectured me on staying hydrated and sent me home where my symptoms continue till the present moment. My throat is still sore. My neck still hurts. The skin on my face and chest is red and splotchy. I still have bouts of nausea and dry heaving. My energy level is a bit better to the point where I was able to do a light housekeeping this morning, but even that bit of effort cost me, and so I am back to lying in bed. As for what is wrong with me? Who knows? But more importantly, who cares? We have all gone from being humans to just being statistics. Do you match these criteria? If not, please step aside.
This pandemic is the moment when we will reveal our humanity. Will we choose to overlook the ones who are easy to overlook? I don’t mean myself. I will be back to health soon enough.
I mean the ones who we have grown accustomed to overlooking; the people who were already struggling to exist. The ones who work multiple odd jobs and still barely manged to feed themselves. The ones who live in slums and have no access to clean water, decent food, education or health facilities. Others too, the elderly and the mentally and physically disabled who are not able to advocate for themselves. When we start to prioritize, as this pandemic will force us to do, who all will we choose to overlook?
In our single-minded focus on COVID, we are neglecting all other illnesses and casting aside all other concerns. COVID is not the only health problem on the planet at the moment though it may be the only one on our television screens and while COVID is exacting its death tolls, shutting down the planet for a prolonged period will also exact a toll which we have not even gotten around to imagining as yet.
Tehmina Khan has her home in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, two children, and their dog, Luna. Mawenzi House published her collection of short stories, ‘Things She Could Never Have’, in the fall of 2017. She is currently working on retelling seven stories from ‘1001 Nights’. Her writing has appeared in the The Blue Minaret, ShedoestheCity, and The /temz/ Review.