“We won’t be triggering protocol because you haven’t been to China,” the doctor said.
I gazed back at him, attached to an IV and wheezing into a face mask, the pain in my throat so bad it hurt to even contemplate a reply. A bowl filled with green mucus and specks of blood sat on the table next to me. I’d just returned from a two-week trip to Thailand.
My family and I arrived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai on Jan. 10, where we spent a week at my aunt and uncle’s house. Eight days later, we flew to Phuket and then to Bangkok, hearing occasional snippets about a mysterious outbreak in Wuhan, China.
The general feeling back then was that this disease was a domestic issue in China. Social and sporting events continued in Thailand and elsewhere, schools remained open, and most of the world went about its business as usual.
But the covid-19 pandemic coincided not only with my trip, but with Lunar New Year — a period when hundreds of millions of people are on the move within China and heading abroad for vacation. The Guardian estimates that more than 25,000 people arrived in Thailand from Wuhan and other Chinese cities affected by the virus between Jan. 3 and Jan. 27. The first recorded case of the virus outside China was reported in Thailand on Jan. 13; more cases soon followed.
My symptoms began three days later. It felt as though I had a cold coming on. I had chills and body aches and woke up with night sweats — something I’d never experienced before. My face and back were aflame, and my sheets were drenched, but I felt freezing. I took my temperature. It was 102 degrees.
The next morning, I began vomiting. I had sharp, shooting pains in both temples. I took the day off work and lay on the sofa shivering, checking my temperature every few hours. It continued to creep upward.
By Jan. 31, I knew something was seriously wrong. The vomiting had subsided, but my throat felt as though it was littered with razor blades. I still had a severe headache, my fever hadn’t come down, and my bones were aching. It hurt to exist.
I dialed 111, England’s non-emergency medical helpline, and told the National Health Service my travel history and that I’d been feeling unwell for several days.
There was not yet an instant message service providing coronavirus advice, as there is now. I received a mixed response from the people I spoke to. One told me they would send an ambulance, while another told me that only people who had been to China were being tested and to call back if my symptoms worsened. I ended the call and sobbed.
My experience, more than a month before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, is now a story thousands of people in Britain, the United States and around the world share — a desperate scramble to figure out if you or a loved one have contracted covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
When my temperature rose beyond 103 degrees on Jan. 31, my family doctor advised me to go to a hospital. Public Health England now advises the opposite: Anyone experiencing symptoms similar to mine should self-isolate at home. Looking back, I wonder whether following the advice of my doctor actually put more people at risk, especially the unprotected health workers who treated me.
By the time I arrived at Whipps Cross Hospital, in East London, my throat pain was so bad my mother had to give staff members my name and explain that my health was rapidly deteriorating since our recent vacation. A nurse took my vitals. The results were clear: My heart was beating too fast, and my temperature was too high.
More than 100 people were waiting to be seen, but concerned hospital workers fast-tracked my case. I was so hot I began taking my clothes off in the waiting room — it was winter outside, but it felt as though there was lava inside my veins. Breathing was becoming a struggle, and I’d been handed a face mask to wear at all times. Then came a hacking cough so bad that it took three weeks to subside.
As they inserted a cannula and took blood samples, I could hear a nurse saying that they were testing me for sepsis and malaria, both of which eventually came back negative. I was given a bed in a private side-room and told that unless I knew I’d been in contact with someone who had the novel coronavirus or been to China, I would not be tested for it. I was too exhausted to argue.
Molly Downing, a spokeswoman for Whipps Cross, later said in an email that testing at the hospital began on Feb. 7.
The first two cases in England were confirmed the same day I was hospitalized, a Chinese student and his mother who had returned to Oxford from Wuhan. Two months later, as of Tuesday evening, there are more than 25,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Britain, and nearly 1,800 people had died.
The doctor diagnosed me with a “viral upper body respiratory infection” and recommended complete bed rest for at least a week. There was no advice about avoiding other people or retracing my steps to alert people I’d come into contact with that I may be contagious. The terms “self-isolate” and “quarantine” were not part of the world’s lexicon in the way they are today.
The timing of my trip, the symptoms I displayed upon return and the grueling recovery has often led me to wonder: Did I have covid-19? Two months on, health-care systems worldwide are being encouraged by the WHO to “test, test, test.” Where would we be if patients with symptoms like mine in January had been tested at the time?
“A swab should have been done” Syed Arshad Husain, a consultant and respiratory physician, said when I described my symptoms during a telephone interview in March.
“They should have checked for covid-19 at that time, but they didn’t,” he said. “And I don’t know what their reasons were.” The fact that I had tachycardia (a heart rate of over 100 beats per minute) should also have been flagged as a possible indicator of the coronavirus, he added. Although the advice for doctors in January would have been different than that of today, his view is that further investigations, such as chest X-rays, should have been conducted because of the severity of my symptoms and my travel history.
My recovery took the best part of a month. I moved in with my parents who are in their 60s, not realizing I could have been putting them in such danger. Both became ill shortly after, although their symptoms were not as severe. Now I am well, back working and involved daily in The Washington Post’s coronavirus coverage.
It’s still hard for people displaying symptoms to be tested and for hard-working health workers to obtain the equipment they need to do their jobs safely. If I did have the coronavirus, the doctors treating me were probably exposed, and friends who came to see me in the weeks following could have contracted and spread it, too.