A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Yesterday afternoon when I got home from the hospital and booted my computer, I was overwhelmed by the thousands of people who sent me messages of love and encouragement after my recent health scare. Thank you! Since many people have asked for details, I’ll share what happened — as best I can.
I’ve been suffering for a few weeks from symptoms typical of an infection from Covid-19, but when I was tested two weeks ago, the results were negative. However, knowing that the tests for Covid are highly unreliable with false negative rates of anywhere from 15% to 30% and even higher for people like me in high-risk groups, I suspected that my test result was a false negative. Then, on Thursday last week, my symptoms became much worse with a spike in fever and a closing of my bronchial tube. The Albuterol which I had been using was ineffective, and I could not breathe. I called 911, but couldn’t speak, so my wife Eva told the operator what was happening, and an ambulance was dispatched. First responders arrived within minutes and gave me oxygen, which probably saved my life. I was taken to Mercy Hospital, not far from our house. After about two hours in the emergency ward, I was assigned a private room in the Covid ward.
Thursday night was rough. Although the details are vague, I remember I was given oxygen, and my continuous dry cough exhausted me. Sometime in the middle of the night, my body seized up. The muscles in my legs, back and abdomen cramped painfully, and the nurse gave me something through the intravenous tube that relaxed the muscles and allowed me to sleep.
Friday was easier. Drugs controlled my fever, kept my air passages clear and eased the coughing. The muscle cramping was less severe. I was given another Covid test which also came back negative. Since I showed all the symptoms of Covid infection, the results of the test seemed to baffle the professionals. Finally, they decided that I had an unknown virus which had exacerbated the asthma which I’ve had for many years and wrote on my chart the vague diagnosis “Viral infection. Asthma.” Privately, one of the nurses said to me that the Covid tests are highly unreliable, and the medical staff was assuming that I was infected with Covid, but for some reason it wasn’t showing up in the lab tests.
On Saturday, I was released with instructions to treat the symptoms and to practice social distancing. At home now, I’m taking Albuterol to keep my air passageways open; Benzonatate to control coughing; a steroid puffer to help heal the bronchial tube, and Tylenol to reduce temperature. Today is Sunday, my first full day at home. I am working at my computer, and the symptoms of the infection (whatever it is) are manageable, but I’m still not well. Writing this post, I’ve been interrupted repeatedly by uncontrollable coughing.
I was extremely impressed by the brave staff at Mercy Hospital. Risking their lives by heroically working 12-hour shifts, the nurses and techs were diligent, professional, and caring. The janitors, cooks, and orderlies were helpful and friendly. Frankly, I didn’t see much of the doctors, mainly just hearing about their instructions from the nurses, but I assume they are putting in long hours as well.
One of the strangest things about staying for 48 hours in a hospital bed in the Covid Ward was that during that entire time no one touched me except to perform procedures. I was poked, prodded and inspected, but no one touched me in affection. Except once. Late Friday night, a nurse named Mary came in to check on me and stood beside the bed. She said it was a slow night, and so we began to talk. Although she was 30 years younger than I am, we had a surprising amount in common. We talked about our families, our marriages, our careers, our fear of Covid… It was one of the most intimate conversations I’ve ever had. And as Mary left my bedside, she patted her gloved hand on the back of my hand, which had an IV needle sticking out of it. So hungry was I for human contact, her touch felt almost electric. I will never forget it.
Despite my high regard for the medical staff at Mercy, I have to say that dealing with the bureaucracy was frustrating; for example, on Saturday it took 9 hours from the time the head nurse told me I could go home to the time I signed the final releases and was wheeled out the front door. I can’t help but wonder whether the efficiency of the hospital could be improved by having fewer administrators, but I’m not an expert in healthcare management, so I could be wrong.
As for my diagnosis… maybe I have a Covid infection, or maybe I have a different virus. But as one physician’s assistant at the hospital told me, in terms of my treatment plan, it doesn’t make any difference because all viral infections are treated in the same way. Since there are no cures for viral infection, the best we can do is to treat the symptoms.
On the other hand, in terms of public policy, the unreliability of the Covid tests presents a serious problem, casting into doubt almost all of the statistics that health care providers, politicians and the general public rely on to make decisions. According to the CDC, as of today there have been 1,347,411 confirmed cases of Covid reported in the United States, but if there is a high rate of false negatives, then we have to assume that the actual number of cases is much higher. And if you consider that there are undoubtedly many people who are asymptomatic, or have only mild symptoms, or have dangerous symptoms but cannot afford to go to the hospital, then these figures become completely meaningless. In other words, the people who have to make decisions about when we can go back to our jobs and where healthcare resources should be allocated are working in the dark. Also, there is a legitimate fear that many front-line health providers, such as nurses and first responders, may be spreading the disease without knowing it. This lack of information available to decision-makers and healthcare workers almost ensures repeated outbreaks of Covid in the future.
So, my experience over the last few days has made me afraid for our country, but on a personal level, it’s become clear that I have a lot to be grateful for. Eva and I live in the city of Pittsburgh, and the first responders who saved my life were stationed within walking distance of my house. If they had taken ten minutes to respond to the emergency call, rather than three minutes, I would certainly have died of asphyxiation. Also, through my wife’s job, I have excellent health insurance which allowed me to be admitted into a world-class teaching hospital where I received treatment from dedicated, highly skilled professionals. And now, sliding back into what passes these days for normal life, I realize that I am blessed with family, friends and colleagues who care about me.
I’m grateful for my good luck and for the profound love directed at me. As my dear friend the poet Richard St. John wrote to me today upon hearing of my small ordeal:
Go forth into the messy world…keep on creating…and be well!
Copyright 2020 Michael Simms
Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi.