WATCHING THE RESIDENTS THAT SHE LOVED SO MUCH LOSE THEIR BATTLE WITH COVID, DAY AFTER DAY AFTER DAY..... IT WAS JUST TOO MUCH...
Megan Rose D’Ambrosio, age 35, Former Assisted Living Employee/Professional Musician Band Leader-West Babylon, NY
MEGAN'S COVID-19 STORY:
My personal experience with COVID-19, began on April 4th, 2020, when I started having symptoms: Stomach flu symptoms that lasted about 3 hours- then I felt OK but exhausted for a few days, and on the 5th day, I awoke with a 103* fever and severe body chills and aches, as well as tremendous pain in my jaw, face, and head. (I received my positive COVID result on April 7th)
I was kept overnight in the ER due to what they found to be pericarditis, costochondritis, and supraventricular tachycardia, as well as scarring from COVID pneumonia in my left lung. (This was in July of 2020, 3 months after my initial infection with COVID-19)
I contracted the virus while working in an Assisted Living facility. (I LOVED my job and my residents and I even write about my feelings of losing those residents that I loved so much, to COVID, below)
DURING MY ILLNESS, I EXPERIENCED THE FOLLOWING SYMPTOMS: Fever, migraine, body aches, chills, facial pain, gum pain, sinus pain, swollen glands, sore throat, infrequent productive cough (not a dry cough!), tightness in the chest, pain in ribcage area, pain in shoulder blades, rash from thighs down, hot red palms, stomach flu symptoms, tachycardia, shortness of breath, right eye twitch (for 4 months), muscle spasms when falling asleep.
At the writing of this story, January 2nd, 2021, I have been sick now for 8.5 months- I am an official "COVID-19 "Long-Hauler".
My advice for those who have not gotten COVID-19: Protect yourself and others by wearing a mask, physical distancing, and reading as much as you can about real-life experiences and scientific studies. It is not a one-size-fits-all virus and it can manifest in many, many different ways.
“Lockdown” By Megan D’Ambrosio
“Maybe we’ll get through this unscathed,” I say to my coworkers at the assisted living facility as we head down to our first mandatory morning meeting. I’m lying through my teeth. I know we won’t. I’m confused as to why everyone at work would meet together for a daily briefing while we are told to keep our distance. Nonetheless, we file in and sign our names and try to keep each other laughing while there seems to be nothing worth laughing about.
We are each given a mask. One mask. We are each handed a paper bag. We write our names on the paper bag and leave the mask in it overnight so that we can reuse it when we clock in for our next shift. We reuse our masks over and over again. There’s a shortage of PPE and nobody knows when we will get more masks. I frantically text everyone I know asking if they have masks or know where I can find masks. Nobody has. Nobody knows.
Hand sanitizer is suddenly nowhere to be found. It’s selling online for hundreds of dollars. At the beginning of February, I had found $40 that I had forgotten about in my pocket while perusing the aisles of CVS. For whatever reason, I had bought $40 worth of hand sanitizer. I hand out travel-sized hand sanitizers to my coworkers who can’t find any. I feel I have armed them with a sliver of hope and protection in a tiny bottle. They are grateful. I make an alcohol-based spray for our masks––a desperate attempt to sanitize something that is meant to be disposed of after a few hours but is now being worn for days on end.
It’s hot. The heat is blasting. The windows are closed. It’s cold outside. There is no fresh air. We do our best to adjust to our new routines while sweating through our uniforms and relishing in the few minutes during lunch when we can take our masks off and breathe a little easier and see each other’s facial expressions. We aren’t coworkers anymore––we are comrades. We are underprepared and under-qualified and underpaid.
We are fighting a monster that we can’t see but can feel everywhere.
We try to make sure that our forced smiles can be felt through the cloth that now covers our faces. The residents are so lonely. They pace back and forth in their tiny apartments wondering when they’ll see their family again. We watch as their memory fades and isolation dulls their eyes. We witness as frustration leads to defeat. We don’t have the answers these men and women are so desperately seeking.
But we show up. Every day, we show up and have our temperatures taken after having just walked in from the cold. Ninety-two degrees is recorded as my temperature so many times. I’m convinced that the thermometer is broken, or that I’m made of ice, and that a receptionist shouldn’t be the one taking my temperature.
Our hands are sweaty from gloves we must wear constantly––gloves that carry germs from room to room yet are somehow keeping ourselves and each other safe.
A few weeks in, and the virus is confirmed in the building. Some employees are angry. They yell. A lot. Their safety is being compromised and they are mad. Others are quiet, resigned to the fact that there’s nothing we can do to fix this now. We are essential employees. We can’t stay at home. We carry a formal letter, attached to a business card, stating that we are essential, just in case we get pulled over on our way to or from work. We only stay home if we get the virus or if we quit our job. We continue trying to at least make it more bearable for each other and for the resident men and women whom we love and whose families are counting on us to get them through this wildly unknown experience.
My aunt from California is a miracle worker. She sends me a box of masks, gowns, and protective goggles. My brother-in-law’s cousin gives me a box of masks. I give my coworkers what they need and hold onto the rest, intending to use the supply as the pandemic surges.
It’s a Monday morning. I am exhausted from weeks of working longer than usual hours under more-trying-than-usual conditions. I’m exhausted from watching the news and seeing the death toll rise. I’m exhausted from driving home to get changed out of my clothes in a cold garage and then running into the bathroom to decontaminate.
I don’t drink coffee. I haven’t attempted to drink coffee in years. It makes me feel sick. I stop at 7-11 and get myself a Frappuccino––anything to help me through another day of this. An hour later I think I have a stomach bug or that I’ve officially developed a severe allergy to caffeine or is this an endometriosis thing? It subsides and I feel okay. I’m tired, but we are all tired. I make it through the mania of another week. Some men and women that I care for and love are not so lucky.
Then, on Friday morning I wake up and I can hardly move. Everything hurts. Everything. My knuckles, my gums, my skin to the touch. I have a fever. I text my twin sister, Katie, and tell her I think I have the virus, asking her, “please don’t tell Mom or Dad because I don’t want them to worry just yet.” I drive to the clinic. It’s hard to drive, but I don’t expect anyone to drive me and be in a car with me right now, nor do I want to take that risk. The parking lot is full. I wait in the car until I am called in. They take my temperature. They feel my swollen glands. They listen to me breathe. They swab my nose. The doctor apologizes for the discomfort. I am in so much physical pain that I hardly notice it.
I call my mom on the drive home. I tell her I am sick. I’m sure I have the virus. She asks if I am scared. For her sake and my own, I tell her no. I tell her (and myself) that I’m going to be alright. I spend the weekend in and out of sleep. I am beyond tired and the pain is like nothing I have ever experienced, but I can’t seem to sleep more than a few hours at a time. I become addicted to the news. I need all of the information I can get.
Monday morning. Positive. “I can get through this”, I repeat over and over. “I am not going to the hospital”, I repeat over and over. I force myself to eat. I can’t taste a thing, but I eat anyway. I force myself to walk around and stretch every few hours. I sleep on my stomach. It hurts too much to sleep on my back. I bundle up and walk outside every afternoon. I am so exhausted that I wonder if I’ll make it back without stopping to sit on the curb for an hour or two.
Everything smells like it is burnt. I am convinced that the upstairs tenants have started smoking. I smell cigarette smoke all of the time. Our herb garden smells like marijuana. “A symptom of Covid”, the doctor says. I text my twin sister every night. I’m afraid to fall asleep for too long because it hurts to breathe when I am laying down.
I tell her that I don’t want to die. She tells me that for me, dying isn’t an option.
But people are dying. So many people are dying. People I love are dying.
Roberta made me belly laugh at least twice a day. Her wit could not be matched. She is quick and slick and makes the most poignant commentary about what is going on around us without anyone else hearing but me. We laugh in secrecy. She teaches me Yiddish curse words. She lights a battery-operated flickering candle every night for a friend who has recently passed. She has a hand-stitched embroidery of Gustav Klimt’s “Der Kuss” framed and hanging on the wall near her kitchen table. We bond over our love for Klimt and crocheting, and I teach her new stitches and help her finish blankets for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I have just finished the edges of a baby blanket for Roberta’s newest great-grandchild. Roberta dies a week before they are born. I hold the blanket close to me and sob.
Ken stole my heart with his relentless positivity and sharp humor and steadfastness living with Parkinson’s disease. He reads the newspaper every morning while sipping a cup of decaf coffee that he says tastes like tar with sugar in it but always asks for another. Ken hates strawberries. I mention this a few months after he first told me. He says that it must be impossible to argue with me if I remember everything someone says. We laugh a lot. The highlight of my pandemic protocol is going to Ken’s room to take his meal order. The TV is blasting and I scream-read the entire menu before he turns it down and asks me to read it again. I do so, happily. He says the food is awful and that as soon as this is over, he’s ordering in a big, juicy cheeseburger and a can of real diet coke. He tells me I can have his fries if there’s any leftover. Before I leave his apartment to move onto the next task, he thanks me. He always thanks me. He tells me to come back soon and chat. I wish I had thanked him more for all the ways he touched my heart without even trying. When I get the news that Ken died, it is difficult to breathe.
I have pneumonia. I resign from my job. The pain of loss overwhelms me to the point where I can’t even cry. I listen to Sara Bareilles’ “Orpheus” on repeat. I sing “What a Wonderful World.” I attempt to stretch my lungs while breathing slowly and disappearing into “Carnival of the Animals––The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saëns. Eventually, I cry for Ken. Big, heavy, angry, sad, ugly tears. I make a terrible mess in the basement, tossing things around in fury. Ken was a magnificent person. I think about him every day. For the first time in 5 years, I am relieved that my Grandma Rose is gone and does not have to live through this.
I cry. I cry for so many lives that intertwined with mine and changed me in profound ways. I cry because their families didn’t get to say goodbye or have a funeral. I cry because I know there is more loss on the way and there is nothing that I can do to stop it. I feel guilty. I feel as if I have abandoned my comrades in the midst of battle. I feel as if I have disappointed so many grandmas and grandpas who relied on me to sing for them. To teach them about classical music. To explore fine art with them. To lend them my ear and my heart. And I miss the special ways in which they loved me, too.
I miss leaving them little notes just to brighten their day, so I start mailing cards to them, making sure not to lick the envelope. Instead, I seal it with a butterfly sticker. I’m so grateful when they write back. But as I anxiously wait for the mail, I wonder if they’re still alive.
I get updates from Andy––a man with a heart of gold and the hardest worker that I had the pleasure of learning from. I miss him and I am grateful that he is able to bounce back from the virus and be with the residents. They need him now more than ever. I hope he knows how important he is. He lets me know when someone dies. My heart is numb as the count tops 20. The number of lost lives continues to grow. Andy is a constant source of support in so many ways. He deserves an award, a luxury vacation, at least a promotion.
The days begin to blur. I am not getting better. I think I’m getting worse. It’s hard to keep track of symptoms at this point because every day my body is doing something new. I wish this adventure would end.
It’s the end of July. I’ve lost track of time. It has been the longest and shortest year. Cities are on fire. Violence is rampant. Politics now dictate cruelty. There is a lack of empathy making the sickness worse. A sickness in itself, permeating every decision, violating any sense of responsibility, trust, and safety.
My left side feels like there is a knife in it, twisting deeper and deeper with every breath. I ignore it for a few days. I am tired of feeling sick. I am tired of being in pain. It’s not subsiding.
I go to the emergency room. They keep me overnight. They run more tests. They try to make me comfortable. They offer me extra blankets. I feel so cold, and I am in so much pain. I fall asleep sitting up. My right eye is twitching so incessantly that it wakes me in my sleep. My heart has been racing for weeks. Sometimes, it beats so fast that I brace myself for an explosion in my chest. I can’t sleep through the tachycardia, but I am so tired. It’s hard to take a deep breath. I get so tired so easily. I nap a lot. I cry a lot. I go to bed every night and tell myself tomorrow will be better. Sometimes it is. Those days are few and far between, but they give me hope and provide much-needed relief.
I have so much anger. I am angry that I got sick. I am angry that I’m not getting better. I am angry that some people are choosing to ignore this pandemic. I am angry at their reasoning. I am angry that life as we knew it is gone forever. And it is. It will never, ever be the same. In some ways, that is a good thing. In others, it is absolutely soul-crushing.
I want to sing and perform and laugh with my friends. I want to hug my nephew without trepidation. I want to share a smoothie with my twin sister and not feel wary.
I want to see my parents. I have seen them once since Christmas. I want to not yell at my parents for going to get groceries, but I can’t help myself. I do a lot of scolding now because I have no control over what my family does or thinks or says, and I need them to be safe. I need them to hear me so I yell. A lot. I need everyone to stay safe from this virus. I need them to take this seriously.
Doctor after doctor, test after test, try this and try that, and I try it all. Some of it helps. I tell my mom that my brain seems funny. I tell her I’m having trouble remembering stuff. I can’t recall lyrics to songs I’ve sung thousands of times. It feels like I took a ton of cold medicine. I am watching life unfold but don’t have the faculties to actively participate.
Sometimes I completely misunderstand a conversation that I am having, and I can’t recall the proper words to say what I want to say, and I end up acting out in frustration. A few times, I find it incredibly difficult to drive, because I cannot physically concentrate on driving. A few times, I don’t remember where I am going. It's a safe bet is that I was going to Target. And when I finally get there, I walk the aisles for a while before I can remember what I needed. I forget that I put a note in my bag with a list of items to buy.
A handheld humidifier helps me breathe a bit easier and soothes my chest. A frozen face roller distracts me from the migraines that come on like a tidal wave. An electronic shiatsu massager helps to soothe my achy ribs.
Singing hurts and leaves me achy and with a low-grade fever and a migraine. Physical activity makes lingering symptoms worse. I am told to be cautious about exercise because it can exacerbate the symptoms and cause more inflammation. But I exercise and monitor my pulse. And then I am exhausted for a few days and have trouble getting out of bed.
I’m determined to keep moving because I cannot stand still in this space any longer. I turn 35 and I’m 6 months post-Covid and things seem to be looking up. My tachycardia is slowly lessening as is shortness of breath. When they do come, the episodes don’t last as long. Still, mid-November brings a rapidly beating heart, an exhausted body, and a weary will.
I’m tired. I’m sad. I’m grieving the loss of the illusion of safety. The loss of my job. The loss of spending time with my coworkers. The loss of performances. The familiar smiles that I’ll never see again. The residents that didn’t survive. Spending time with my family. My daily routine. I’m grieving for the hundreds of thousands that didn’t live through the virus. I’m grieving for the thousands upon thousands that did live through the virus but hardly feel alive because of the debilitating after-effects.
My twin sister said that for me, dying was not an option. I can only hope living becomes filled with life again.
My twin sister and best friend, Katie and I.
I don't know what I would have done without her support.
Happy moments with my dear friends, Molly & Katie
What I love to do the most, sing!!
Fur babies that help make life sweet!
Performing on stage makes me so happy.... it often brings me back to the days that I used to sing to my residents that I loved so much!