What it’s really like to fight the virus and deal with the social stigma she experienced

On Saturday 29th February, my four friends and I were at a day-time rave. Despite the Coronavirus sweeping across the world we still felt it wasn’t a reality. We were carefree, drinking and doing what we always do together: having fun.

I had just returned from a holiday skiing and had just started a new job working in a pharmaceutical office.

Rebecca James*, 27, was one of the first people to be tested positive for Coronavirus in Europe over two weeks ago. While the sickness was worse than she had imagined – what shocked her most was the judgement and suspicion she received from those around her. Here, Rebecca tells her story…

The situation in Italy had started to escalate just as I was flying for my holiday. In the five days I was gone, it felt like it exploded. But coming home, I still couldn’t imagine that catching Coronavirus was something that would happen to anyone I knew, or this quickly.

Minus the inevitable hangover that followed the day after the concert, I felt completely fine. But by Tuesday, by lunchtime I started to get horribly achy while I was at work. By 3pm I was really dizzy. I remember the specific timing, because this was the point I received a text from my best friend Julia, who visited me that weekend, saying she also fell ill and was going to be tested in hospital. We’d been partying with two other friends who were personal trainers and they started to message our WhatsApp group saying they felt the same way.

At this point, it was still so early on in the pandemic, we still didn’t realise how serious it was going to be. After all, the government, the media and everyone around me was telling us, “If you are young, it will be like a mild flu.”

My new office houses a total of five hundred people, so there’s a lot of human contact during the day. That’s why, when I saw my friend’s message, I thought ‘holy f**k, I have Coronavirus and I’m going to infect everyone!” I stood up from my desk and for the first time in my life, I fainted.

My co-workers attended to me on the floor, making sure I was ok. While I was panicking about having Coronavirus, they reassured me saying, “Relax, you won’t have it, don’t worry.” My boss took me in a cab to the hospital. I was freaking out all the way there mentally going over the scenarios of what might happen if I was about to be diagnosed with Coronavirus.

When I got to the hospital reception, they asked me about my symptoms. They instantly correlated them Coronavirus symptoms. The woman behind the desk looked at me with wide eyes. I then went into the doctor and as he was trying to shine a torch down my throat, but comically, was standing a couple of metres away from me. It was ridiculous. How could he even see down my throat from that far away?

The doctor took my vitals – including my temperature, my blood pressure and checked my heartbeat – and the whole way through he was so chilled. Eventually he told me to go straight home, stay isolated, stay hydrated, eat healthily, take vitamins and sleep as much as possible.
No formal test was taken and to be honest I think they just thought I was overreacting or being a hypochondriac. They never informed me to come back, just to take myself home.

My boss was equally really calm about it and said, “Obviously don’t come to the office, you need to rest and look after yourself.” I was just feeling so embarrassed, a bit panicked. I kept thinking, “This cannot be real. Do I actually have Coronavirus?”

I took a taxi back to my flat which I share with two people. I told them I was really sick, I was entering into self-isolation and luckily, they didn’t freak out at all, they were hugely supportive, offering help in any way they could.

By that night, I was completely soaked in sweat with a high fever and chills. My body was so achy. It was painful to get out of bed, It was painful to gather the energy to go to the bathroom and I had a continuous and unrelenting pounding headache. All I could do was lay in bed, drink water and sleep on and off all day. I didn’t have much of an appetite but, I ate anyway out of boredom and knowing my body needed the nutrients. I ate mostly salty things like soups, rice with tomato sauce or just the simplest, bland things I could think of. At one point I remember trying to eat a pizza and I just felt awful afterwards, as your body is just crying out for proper nutrition and that pizza did nothing good for me.

Whilst I was self-isolating in my room, I had to be very careful when moving into the communal spaces. My two roommates tried their best to look after me, always asking if I needed anything and went to get me food and paracetamol. I still cooked for myself, continuously washing my hands and bed sheets. I would vacuum, sweep all the floors, sterilise the door handles and sink faucets with antibacterial spray multiple times a day to help protect the other people in my home.

People ask me what I did with myself during this time. I knew my best friend was going through the same thing at the same time so I didn’t feel alone. But, for the first two days, my eyes hurt too much to look at a phone screen or speak to anyone. In those first few days, I felt like I was dying. I just slept or stared at my ceiling. It was only by the fourth day I felt well enough to watch a bit of Netflix, read and message friends again.

Even though I was slowly but surely, getting better, I still didn’t feel well, so I went back to the doctors. Finally, when they checked my vitals again, they confirmed I had Coronavirus. I was also told I was only allowed to leave isolation after seven days. I told my boss and equally as we work at a medical organisation, he knew it was safe for me to return to work, although we are all now following instructions to work from home.

Going back into the outside world the following Tuesday felt scary. I had only just stopped feeling dizzy the day before. I was unsure as to whether I would even have the energy to get through a full day, but surprisingly it was ok. By Wednesday I was playing football for my local team, again. I think being young, fit and healthy enabled me to have such a speedy recovery.

I still worry about coming into contact with people and being responsible for spreading it. There is so much conflicting advice.

What I could never have envisaged is the suspicion I felt from colleagues on my return back to work. I felt judged by those around me. People around me would eye me suspiciously and question my physical condition throughout the day. I felt so conscious of people watching me and observing me, that I became very careful about coughing or sneezing to avoid making people even more paranoid. Part of the stigma around having this disease, means I want to stay anonymous for this story because I’m worried about how people will judge me.

Now I can honestly say I feel strong again, but I still get tired easier than normal. The doctors who I have been back in contact with are telling me to continue to stay isolated as much as possible , avoid alcohol, and continue to stay hydrated and rest often.

If I could go back and give myself some advice that weekend before I went out and possibly caught the virus I would say to stay in as much as possible. I would also say to healthy me, to eat healthy and take care of yourself and wash your hands regularly. Crucially I would also say keep yourself and your mind as fit as possible because you will need your mental and physical health.

By going through this I have learnt that we all need to be more conscious of the way we treat ourselves, but also others. This time really shows people’s true colours – whether that be unnecessary stock piling or stigmatising the sick and not supporting your friends who have got it – we need to reach out to each other and be supportive of one another. In times of trouble it’s important to reflect, realise who actually has your back and in a positive way people are being humbled right now. We need to stay grounded and think about what’s really important in life. I hope these lessons last long after Coronavirus has hopefully disappeared from view.

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