I met my best friend at 5 years old, and she’s been my best friend ever since.
At 21, we could both say that we’ve been through all the good and the bad our lives have had to offer each other, together and apart.
And after every hardship I’ve watched her go through, I speak candidly when I say I’ve never seen her suffer through anything the way she suffered through COVID-19.
When she called me the night she tested positive, I cried for hours after we hung up. Not because I didn’t believe that everything would be okay, but because I selfishly knew I wouldn’t be in the slim chance it wasn’t.
I cried because her dad, who tested positive too, is in his 60s and the symptoms have been observed to be much harsher for older populations. And I cried because I was reminded that life isn’t fair to the people it should be kind to, and my best friend and her family are the most benevolent people you could meet.
But as I lamented her misfortunes, I was equally horrified by the fact that she didn’t get COVID-19 from eating at restaurants, or attending get-togethers, or shopping at the mall.
Her family had refrained from doing any of these things, and followed all social distancing protocols that were implemented in her region at the time.
She tested positive because her dad went to work, and contracted COVID-19 from his co-worker who unknowingly had the virus. By the time he tested positive, it was too late.
It was the moment her positive test so formidably stared at her through the screen of her computer that the most horrific days of her life began, and seemed to be beyond anyone’s capacity to help.
The few days between the day she tested positive and the day the tribulation really set in was a waiting game, in which uncertainty surrounded whether her and her dad’s symptoms would become much, much worse.
And they did. Although my friend’s symptoms were considered to be mild, she experienced terrible dizziness, joint pain, body aches, loss of smell, headaches, and fatigue: fatigue of which she characterizes as feeling as though she had run a marathon just by climbing the stairs, and still struggles with today.
More than a month after contracting the virus, she’s learned she is a victim of the virus’s long-term symptoms.
The day after the end of her suggested isolation period was when her heart started to feel strange, and the next day she learned she had tachycardia: a condition where one’s heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute. This condition has been followed by extreme hair loss and tinnitus, both of which she never experienced prior.
She had perfect health prior to testing positive, and is 21 years old.
Her dad’s symptoms were far from mild — they were horrific, and left her and the rest of her COVID-negative family incapacitated.
Although his symptoms presented themselves as what can be characterized as “mild”: headaches, body aches, fever, chills, distorted taste, and muscle weakness, his illness progressed to pneumonia, causing his body to battle that sickness first, and leaving COVID-19 to violently takeover.
I’ve never seen my best friend so upset when she FaceTimed me to tell me her dad was in the hospital a few days after his symptoms set in, and I’ve never been at such a loss of words to help.
Thankfully, once the pneumonia was treated her dad was able to recover, but her family is left traumatized and fearful of contracting the virus again.
Although I’ve been following all social distancing protocols in my area, my best friend’s experience was a wake-up call. I’m scared that if I somehow contract the virus I’ll give it to my mom, who still has a terrible cough from having pneumonia 10 years ago, or my sister, who struggles with an autoimmune disease.
I’m scared that her experience will become my own.
When I was in second-year I took a course called Narratives of Health. It explored the stark realities of those living with disabilities and sickness: how they cope and how they grapple with healing.
One reading that particularly caught my attention was Johanna Hedva’s “Letter to a Young Doctor”. Hedva identifies it as “An epistolary essay on the terms of engagement between patient and doctor”, but perhaps a more poignant characterization is her other identification: “A document of emergency”.
The letter is a response from Hedva to a young doctor named Erica, someone who wrote:
“I am someone who will soon be a physician attempting to care for people, and yet I find that I still don’t know what healing means”.
“You asked me a lot of questions in your letter, and they all felt like questions I ask myself. They seem to be variations of asking, “What are we going to do?” which I think is the same as asking, “How can we heal?”
“How can we heal?”, not just in the medical sense, but in the emotional sense, seems to be a question we’re all struggling to answer these days.
Hedva goes on to explain her experience with one doctor, how during an extreme panic attack, she was able to calm down. Not because the doctor “treated” her, but put himself on the same plane.
Her panic attack had started because she couldn’t explain how Van Gogh committed suicide, a story she notes she “[knew] by heart, so forgetting it alarmed [her]”. The doctor told her “he’d recently seen a Van Gogh exhibition, and was surprised at how small the canvases are, just this big, and how yellow and vibrant the suns and flowers are”.
It was this interaction that made her trust him, and so she was able to pull herself out.
She concludes her essay to Erica by writing:
“If I ever find myself sitting across from you, in an ER, or a clinic, or in your private practice, while you observe my presenting symptoms, categorize what you see according to your encyclopedic knowledge, mentally summarize my problems into diagnoses and possible etiologies and treatments, and speak to me of your “plan of attack,” or how we’re going to “beat this thing,” I hope that you might also speak to me of flowers and suns and the color yellow, and of the world being just this big, and of your optimism, and of my many pieces that are all somehow here, lingering, remembering, and of some ways we might start putting things together, again, or for the first time, or letting them stay in pieces, just honoring that they are here, that you are here, and so am I”.
“How can we heal?” I hardly have the answers. But what Hedva is calling for in her letter to doctors, and can apply to all of us during this time, is empathy.
We’re all going through something these days. And I wish healing was linear. But maybe the best place to start is sitting with each other's pieces, and honouring them, and trusting that we will get through this together.
This article was written with the help and permission of my best friend, and I thank her for letting me share her story.