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I am Patient 2828

By HOWIE G. SEVERINO

April 7, 2020

After 11 days in the hospital, a bout of pneumonia and a major scare, I think I can now be called a COVID-19 survivor.

I know of a few others, all attempting to return to low-profile lives in a fearful world, but most choose to remain invisible. There are strong reasons for this anonymity. This disease is one of the most stigmatized and loneliest in human history, perhaps comparable only to leprosy where quarantine can be forever.

One of my fellow COVID-19 patients in the hospital can’t go home because his condo building won’t let him move back, despite already testing negative for the virus.

I am one of the lucky ones who have been able to go home, resume a semblance of my former life, and live to tell the tale.

It’s a tale of long painful needles that couldn’t find a vein in my hands, the swabs down my throat that made me gag, the torture of long sleep deprivation, and the team of doctors who formed a Viber group to discuss updates on my case and the experimental drug chloroquine that worked on patients elsewhere and eventually worked on me.

Since the pandemic is far from over, many more will be infected and confined. Some will not make it. Those of us among the pioneers — I’m Patient 2828 in the lower part of the curve - have a responsibility to talk about this experience in a way that will enable the public to understand it, lessen the fear, and create compassion for those who survived COVID-19.

Howie Severino on surviving COVID-19

A few takeaways:

  1. Transparency is an obligation. While there are good reasons to keep this condition under wraps — there are even privacy laws that can justify it — it's not fair to anyone who has had close contact with you.

    For the greater good, we are required to disclose our COVID-19 status to the Department of Health. Contact tracing can go a long way in preventing its further spread. This is more than a notification of work colleagues.

    One of my more critical decisions was informing my close neighbors. They reacted with compassion and appreciation for the information, but I’m not sure how they would have reacted if they found out later or through the barangay.

  2. This disease need not be so lonely. You’re in isolation in a hospital or at home, with no visitors except frontliners in PPE spacesuits. You can’t see their faces and tell them apart aside from their body shapes. That doesn’t mean you need to feel alone.

    Like many under lockdown, our phones are our lifeline and our source of social support. I had Zoom meetings from my hospital bed, saw family social events and group conversations.

    The most someone can do for a COVID-19 patient is to stay in touch online. Even with this connection, the regular visits of nurses to perform tests and take your vital signs were indispensable in maintaining a mental balance. I got to know many of them, the risks they take, their long walks home, their own isolation at home, the fear of others when they walk by.

  3. When reaching out to COVID-19 patients, do so with more than get well messages. Share family news, your playlists, jokes and memes, anything that can offer a respite from the constant reminders of our condition. We do not need more pity.

    One of my most memorable moments of relief was when my friend Alonso told me the hilarious story from years ago of being in a kalesa on Roxas Blvd and being chased by a police car for the driver’s traffic violation (“the world’s slowest police chase”). He recalls spotting me on my bike so that I stopped and lobbied the cops to let my passenger friend go.

  4. COVID-19 need not be a death sentence. I am living proof. A combination of good fortune, physical fitness and competent medical treatment probably saved my life.

    Don’t believe all the statistics. One false impression is that the fatalities outnumber the recoveries, artificially bloating the case fatality rate. The reality is many of the recoveries don’t get counted, while the deaths often make the news, adding to the overwhelming sense of dread. The odds of survival are pretty good.

  5. Don’t underestimate the power of the mind. The debilitating effects of the disease and the medication combined with the uncertainty produced one of the worst nights of my life. Unable to sleep, I was delirious with visions of death crossing my mind.

    My wife calmly walked me through meditation and breathing exercises she learned at theater workshops. In the dark, I closed my eyes, imagined lavender fields, and started counting to 100. I was trying to dispel the dreadful thoughts and finally fell asleep before the count of 100.

  6. Frontliners are true heroes, but many more have chosen to stay out of harm’s way. One can’t blame them considering the risks and discrimination.

    When my wife contacted a private nursing agency in search of additional nursing support, out of 200 nurses on their roster, only one stepped up. He happened to be a strapping young man in PPE who was interested in documentary.

    I taught him how to shoot and he began to document his life as a frontliner, which eventually became a documentation of his patient. This apprenticeship was a great diversion, kept my mind active while giving me a blessed sense that even lying there in isolation I was getting something done.
Howie Severino on surviving COVID-19

It will be hard to pay them back, but one can pay it forward. If it’s true that I will have antibodies in my blood that can help others fight off infection, I’ll be glad to donate this accidental gift. It’s a small price for all survivors to pay for the chance to see the sun again.

Very often when alone in my room, I’d gaze out of my window into the empty streets, the trees, and a giant bas relief of the Philipppine map displayed in a dry fountain in the hospital’s parking lot. It reminded me of a world I was eager to rejoin.

Howie Severino on surviving COVID-19