I have from time to time felt that the dose of irony in my life gets suspiciously high. Sometimes it creeps in unwelcome, preying on what’s good and pushing buttons. Other times, it forces me to open my eyes a little, and give into what feels uncomfortable. This time around, it was a little bit of both, and the timing was absolutely unbelievable.
The COVID panic hit India in early March. I remember this because the last “social” thing I attended was on March 7th: a Vir Das show. I went with a group of relatives and friends. Seated on cloth-covered folding chairs set up in the outdoor activity area of a mall, we struggled to contain our laughter as Das rolled out zinger after zinger. It was amazing, but even then we had gone with an air of caution. At this point in time, we’d already been washing our hands frantically and avoiding touching surfaces that didn’t need to be touched. In fact, when I got home that night I was urged to take a shower and change, just to be safe.
The following Monday, I got food poisoning (not from the show, obviously). My stomach gets upset a lot, but most of the time I can pin the cause down to something specific that I ate. That day, I wasn’t really sure what hit me. It was brutal. I had to leave work early and take the next day to recover.
By the time I was able to make it back into the office, and whole new problem had arisen. People were re-entering the country and starting to show suspicious symptoms. Some of those people didn’t live very far from where we were working. We’d already started keeping hand sanitizer around the office and removing any snack items that weren’t individually wrapped, but by then the risk had gotten to another level. Every opening of a door, every push of an elevator button, and every conversation, was suddenly cause for concern.
Since shifting from Thailand to India, and then from home to the workplace, I’d gotten sick a few times already. Every change in environment brought new levels of stress and germ exposure that hit me pretty hard, but at least none of it was considered particularly dangerous. This was something else.
Team-by-team we transitioned from the office to a work-from-home model. Before long we were all glaring at screens with headphones plugged in for hours on end. My lunches with friends, turned into lunches with my parents, who were also working from home. Some of my friends started cooking and cleaning their homes as household help was barred from entering their gated communities and apartment buildings. Masks were donned, and the usually moderately busy grocery stores in the area were skirted by queues of nervous residents standing six feet apart.
Within a week, our world had changed.
Soon after, Prime Minister Modi announced a country-wide lockdown.
Once the lockdown was in place, everyone was working from home. This meant that cars were off the roads, malls were closed down, and movie theatres remained dark all around the city. Some restaurants were open and still delivering, a relief to many, and hospitals were open and more vigilant than ever.
We ordered food a few times in the beginning of the lockdown period, but eventually stopped in an effort to minimize the contact we had with anyone outside the house. I stopped visiting my friends even within my gated community. We were terrified.
The weekend of March 21st, I started to feel a little out of it. I was expecting my period sometime that weekend, so I didn’t think much of it — I mean, the female body does weird things before every cycle. Like clockwork, my stomach started cramping up and my energy levels plummeted. I started hoarding chocolate in my room, and prepared to nestle into bed with a heating pad when the awful cramping came around. What was strange, however, was that even before the cramps had a chance to get bad, I started feeling cold, really cold.
The next day, before heading for an evening walk, I told my parents I needed to rest a little. I ended up walking with them later in the night, but could feel my energy dwindling. At around 3 am, my temperature was at 100.4 F. Then, right on its horribly cruel cue, my period came as well.
That night was brutal. I had to choose between controlling the fever and controlling the cramps. By the time the cramps subsided the day after, the fever still hadn’t gone. It was now shooting up as high as 101, even with paracetamol.
Fortunately, I hadn’t coughed at all, but my back was in agonizing pain. Every one of my joints was screaming at me. If I didn’t take medicine at regular intervals, I’d sweat straight through my clothes. My parents and I agreed it was time for me to self-quarantine.
I barely left my room that week. My routine became eating a light snack, taking my temperature, taking medicine, working, and napping. I really didn’t do much else. My parents often stood at the door of my room to check up on me, asking me to check my temperature and then relaying data points to the doctors we were in touch with. We wiped down my room and changed my sheets regularly, washing them and my clothes separate from everyone else’s. Books that I finished waited on a table near my door, where I would place emptied dishes from my regular light meals.
A few days in, my parents encouraged me to sit out on the balcony every day, just for a half an hour. I would sit mostly alone, with my phone and a book, my back aching, my head damp from sweating through the night. The warmth of the sun bathed my face, urging me to move a little. Sometimes I would sit with my back facing it, hoping the heat would relieve some of the pain that ran up and down my spine.
The only one that really entered my room was my dog, Mowgli. He seemed to be confused as to where I’d disappeared to during the day. He definitely knew something was off, and he’d hop up to give me company even though I’d avoid petting him.
We were afraid it was a viral fever. When my temperature shot up to 103 one night, through the help of a family friend and my aunt, both amazing doctors, we decided that it was time for a blood test. At least we could check if it was something else, hopefully something treatable.
Stepping out of my room that Saturday morning was surreal. I had a mask on, and had just washed up, but was terrified of touching anything in the house. I mentally measured my distance between any two walls I walked between, minimizing my contact with the insides of my home. When we got to the car, I sat all the way at the back, an entire row away from my dad and our household help.
When we arrived at the community gate, we found it closed. Guards, also wearing masks, were eying our car carefully. They asked us where we were going and my dad explained. They hesitantly opened the gate and let us through. What I saw then made me gasp.
Bengaluru is widely known to have some of the worst traffic in India, if not the world. To put that in perspective, in Bengaluru, we don’t measure journeys by distance, we use time. If something is 2 km away, depending on the direction and time of day, it could take anywhere from 5 to 50 minutes to get there. Everyone goes by their own rules. Speed bumps are everywhere. Potholes like to make a guest appearance from time to time. No one waits, you just have to inch your way through to assert yourself. It’s crazy, almost like a video game.
When we got on the main road that Saturday morning, there were no other cars on the road. The metal doors of stores had been pulled down, and the entrances of malls were empty.
There was a shop that we drove by for the first time that day, that we wound up driving by every day for the next couple of weeks. It was a small grocery store, with people lined up spaced apart. There were signs up all over warning customers to stay away unless they had masks on, and instructing them to keep their distance.
It was eerie,
at least until I looked up.
I blinked a few times to make sure my eyes were okay, and then let out a muffled sigh through my mask. The sky was strikingly blue.
On the way to hospital, I noticed trees blossoming with flowers and leaves that had fallen to the pavement, uncrushed and bright. I could see where the road was well-paved, and where it needed some work. I saw the actual color of the road, a dusty dark gray, baking in the March sun. The drive, that normally took close to an hour, was over in under 20 minutes. We eased into the driveway of the hospital. I shook myself out of the odd trance I had entered. Oddly moved by the journey, I carefully got out of the car, touching as little of the vehicle’s interior as possible.
At the hospital we were greeted by a fully PPE-covered nurse, who checked our temperature and offered my dad and me a squirt of hand sanitizer each. We bowed our “thank you”s and made our way indoors.
I want to express, here, how amazed I was with this hospital. Nearly empty, they still wiped it down regularly and kept a check on who came in and who went out. Everyone was incredibly polite and helpful, speaking to us calmly and ensuring that we knew we were not under COVID threat while inside the building. The nurse that drew my blood that day, was just as happy to help as those that we met in the weeks to come. Many of them were taken to work in hospital ambulances to ensure their safety and job security. I am so grateful to them all.
When the results came in, we both breathed sighs of relief and took in sharp breaths of panic. It was typhoid. The good news? It was not COVID, or a viral. That meant that no one else in the house was really at risk of catching it from me. I could stop self-quarantining. This also meant that there was a defined treatment plan for me to follow. The only downside was the typhoid is a pretty nasty illness to contract. It was going to take time to treat. To make matters more stressful, the antibiotics had to be administered intravenously. In other words, we were going to have to venture on over the the hospital every day for the next couple weeks.
The first trip was a nightmare to plan. We had to organize for a special pass in case we were stopped by the police for driving around during a lockdown. Until we could get this ourselves, we had to hire a car service to help get us to the hospital for the first day. Once it was clear that getting a pass would be difficult, we inquired whether it would be possible to have a nurse come home and administer the antibiotics. This turned out to be a no-go; the risk of bringing COVID into the community was too high. After speaking to the nurses at the hospital, they recommended keeping my medical file and receipts in an accessible location in the car, since the police were allowing transportation for medical reasons. It also helped that after the first day I had my hand all bandaged up to keep my cannula in place.
We left every morning around 8 am and every evening around 6 pm. I missed a few evening calls for work, but was otherwise trying my best to keep up with my projects — it was one of the things keeping me sane. Everyday we put on our masks and met a new person at the entrance of the hospital.
“Cough, fever, body ache?” They’d ask each time.
“No, we’re here for an injection.” My dad would respond.
After a few days the nurses began to recognize us. Each had their own way of getting me ready for my injection. Some had me lie down, some had me sit up. Some used the top valve of the cannula, and some the side. With each injection into the same cannula, my hand got a little more sore.
I wasn’t allowed to get the bandaging wet, so I’d shower awkwardly while the bandage was on. When they were ready to put a new cannula in, they’d take it out for the night and I’d get to go home with an un-bandaged hand. These were the nights I washed my hair and cleaned up real good. It was oddly thrilling. I was also lucky that these dates lined up pretty well with my hair wash schedule.
Once I was formally diagnosed, I was also put on a pretty strict diet — one that I’m still easing out of almost 2 weeks post my last antibiotic dose. The diet wasn’t so much what I could eat, and more what I couldn’t: fats, fiber, spicy food, and anything that could make me bloated (i.e. dairy, gluten). So what did I eat? Well, we gave the gluten thing a bit of leniency, since I needed something to give me energy. After that, the list included: white bread, potatoes, pasta, potatoes, daal, kichidi, potatoes, rice noodles, clear soups, and more potatoes. There were a few fruits that had been given the green light, and I had light biscuits from time to time, but it was really mostly potatoes.
Other than the honey in the ginger-tulsi tea I had 3 times a day, I couldn’t consume any sweet treats, so I came up with the magical concept of cinnamon-sugar potatoes (see bottom left image). Theoretically pretty gross, but weirdly really delicious in practice.
I also strongly took to pajamas during the course of my treatment. I wore crocs and oversized shirts along with the wide range of old PJs I had lying in my closet. Some, old gifts from my grandparents, some bought on a whim. My favorites were the ones that I could match with my loose shirts — it was the closest to “fashionable” I got.
For our car rides, I started curating playlists. It was fun trying to figure out what my dad and I would both like, bouncing between old and new songs, and experimenting with newly released music. I had to be careful not to play anything too somber, but also anything too hype. There’s only so much EDM that one can handle while en route to the hospital on a Monday morning.
It took a total of 10 days of IV antibiotics to clear typhoid out of my system. I was pretty lucky, actually; sometimes the treatment goes on much longer. Sometimes people even relapse. I’d actually been vaccinated against typhoid 18 months prior in Bangkok, which had given my body some of the strength needed to keep the infection to a minimum. Even so, it sapped me of my strength, left my joints aching, and kept me burning up well into early hours of the morning. I can’t even imagine what a fully blown infection must feel like.
When I was first diagnosed, I remember my parents and I exchanging glances of confusion. Isn’t COVID the concern right now? Where on earth did typhoid even come from?
The interesting thing is that typhoid and cholera cases had been popping up all around the city over the past few months. Unfortunately, because all the media coverage was focused on COVID, no one really knew about it. One nurse nodded when we came in for the first IV antibiotic dose.
“We were surprised that it was typhoid,” my dad explained to her.
“Did she eat something weird or raw? Anything washed with dirty water?” the nurse asked.
My mind darted back to the food poisoning I’d gotten a few weeks prior. Along with that, I suddenly remembered every salad and blended beverage I’d had in the past month and shuddered.
“Well, we’re not sure,” my dad admitted. “Have you seen any other cases?”
“Well, she’s not the first case today,” the nurse said. It was around 9 am.
It took typhoid to get me out of the house.
It took getting out of the house to get me to look outside.
It took looking outside to remind me to pay more attention.
One thing that this whole experience has opened my eyes to, is how consumed we’ve become by this disease. It is a horrible and truly awful presence in our world, and of course we need to pay attention to it, but the fact that it took typhoid to get me to look at the sky really upset me. Over the course of my treatment, the following reminders smacked me in the face:
- You can still get sick from the illnesses that were around before COVID was
- You will still get your period every month (if you get periods at all)
- You can still feel upset and overwhelmed and lonely depending on the activities you engage in every single day
Along with these, some other nuances of reality came back into focus as I dug into my old pajama drawer and reached for books I’d been meaning to read. While sick, I called more friends, and spent more time away from my screen than I had in weeks. I drew and colored, wrote and blogged. I had to pay attention to how much water I was drinking, because I’d sweat it off so quickly, and I had to be ready to shower and fall into a routine, because that was what my treatment demanded. I had to think about what I was putting into my body, and work with my family to make sure we were all honoring our schedules and commitments. I may have been at the mercy of something out of my control, but at least there were steps I could take to take care of myself. A lot of these steps are things that I should have been doing anyway; things that the lockdown had made me believe were not worth paying attention to anymore.
The world is a strange place right now and everything seems different. This, I understand. That being said, not everything is different. While many aspects of life have ground to a halt, some things are just not going to stop. We are still human. The bare bones of the human condition still exist.
I am so grateful that my illness did not turn out to be COVID-19, and to still have the flexibility to embrace parts of my life that are important to me. It may have taken another illness to remind me of what some of these parts are, but I hope that it doesn’t come to that for others out there.
If you are well and staying at home, and feel like you’re developing cabin fever, I want to say this:
There is life beyond this virus, if you want it — it’s a little more restrictive than what we’re used to, but it’s there.
While it may feel so, time is not frozen. The rain will still fall and thunder will still roar. The sun is still out there, offering up light to those who want it. The sky is still open for your eyes to wander through. The birds are still chirping, and the stars are still showing themselves.
I sincerely hope you are not driven out of the house the way I was, but if you too need to check on the world take a peak out the window. It’s all right there. I’ve seen it myself.