What is it like to be sick during the COVID-19 pandemic? How do people in high-risk groups feel when they begin experiencing symptoms that may or may not align with what the CDC warns, but are afraid or embarrassed to go to the hospital? How do we respond to the people who do?
Recently Kathy Griffin tweeted out her own experience going to the emergency room and how terrifying it was for her. Many called her a liar and a fraud. But I experienced something strikingly similar and I want to share how our two stories are more alike than different in hopes of bringing empathy to politics during this time.
I was walking upstairs when the sharp pain in my chest and stomach stopped me in my tracks. I paused, scanning my torso with my hand trying to determine the source. My head was pounding, I felt like I had a fever, I had vomited the day before and was frustrated by continuous nausea. I was having trouble breathing.
“Should I go to the ER?”, I allowed the experience to play out in my head and briefly pictured myself in a hospital bed with a ventilator mask on. Shaking away the image I pushed forward, only to be stopped by the pain again a few steps later. I just didn’t have a choice.
With my strong but clearly worried husband next to me, I did my best to keep the uncertainty from showing on my face. Driving to the ER felt absurd, but the symptoms were getting worse. I imagined what it would be like to not see my dog again, to have to call my mom in an isolation ward, to be a statistic over a stupid cough that had been pursuing me for days.
Kathy Griffin found herself with mild stomach discomfort, two days later her husband was driving her to an Urgent Care, “she woke up very early in the morning and had incredibly intense pain, vomiting, diarrhea, every 20 minutes. Just really sick.”
The Urgent Care sent her to a nearby hospital ER, once she arrived she was given something for her pain and then relocated to a special area, as a spokesperson for the hospital noted, “[T]here’s a specific COVID-19 area in the emergency department where staffers see patients who are sicker and may require more testing or hospitalization. That’s where Griffin was.”
Kathy recalled, “Frankly, when they said the corona ward, I thought I would be walking into the white suits with blue-taped ceilings, everything,” she said. “I kind of expected them to put me in a shower room and all that — but as recently as [March 24], there’s no cavalry that’s coming in handing out millions of [test] swabs.”
Similarly, it was unsettling as my husband and I walked into hospital only to be stopped by a security guard who informed us my husband could not go inside with me and rattled off a series of screening questions. I was the only person in the lobby. By the time I got back to the ER, I was surrounded by people in masks and plastic face guards and I felt like I was in a movie. I was scared.
Kathy remarked, “The doctor was going through the boxes and going through the boxes [on a form] and she kept saying, like, ‘Ugh, because of the lungs, the fever and the kind of cough ... you don’t meet the CDC requirements,’” This after the Urgent Care doctor advised her to get the COVID-19 test. I too laid in a bed in a nearly empty ER and the doctor checked through a list as well. They came to the same conclusion. I remember the nurse commenting to me that they didn’t want to test unless they were sure of the symptoms.
Like Kathy, I felt confused and frustrated. She commented “Someone at Cedars said to me, we cannot give you this test because of the CDC guidelines. I’m suggesting that the guidelines are still too strict because they don’t have enough tests.”
I belong to a high-risk group, and my HIV is currently untreated because I haven’t been able to get health insurance and haven’t qualified for assistance. This concerned the doctor and nurses, as did my difficulty breathing, my stomach and chest pain, my cough, my vomiting and my fever symptoms. But I didn’t quite qualify for the test either.
Kathy and I both received x-rays and a CT scan, she was diagnosed with a severe stomach infection and I possible Bronchitis with an upper respiratory infection. But neither of us know if we were exposed to the COVID-19 virus or not.
Understandably, on March 25th, Kathy felt angry when she saw President Trump tweet out, “Just reported that the United States has done far more “testing” than any other nation, by far! In fact, over an eight day span, the United States now does more testing than what South Korea (which has been a very successful tester) does over an eight week span. Great job!”
She herself tweeted, “He’s lying. I was sent to the #COVID19 isolation ward room in a major hospital ER from a separate urgent care facility after showing UNBEARABLY PAINFUL symptoms. The hospital couldn’t test me for #coronavirus because of CDC (Pence task force) restrictions. #TESTTESTTEST”
Many on the right responded to Kathy’s anger towards Trump with disdain and even mockery. She recently lost her mother after helping her through heartbreaking dementia, the emotional toll on her family overwhelmed her before she began feeling sick that day.
I too left the hospital feeling confused and worried and wasn’t sure what to do next if my symptoms changed or got worse. While there is good reasoning behind the caution for testing, from an individual perspective, it was genuinely frightening. My husband and my mom were baffled by the fact doctors didn’t test me. As much daily information we receive, there is still so much we just do not know.
If we all walk away from this experience with anything, I hope it is a more universal empathy. This has been so difficult for so many people, its far too easy to judge. Regardless of politics or class or celebrity, we are all human and when we feel the most vulnerable, we all want reassurance and answers. I share this story because we should not shame people for demanding answers, even if we disagree with them. I hope in the coming weeks, we all find more reassurance in the answers we are given.