I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I was born in California but grew up in Venezuela, where I was a competitive swimmer all the way through medical school. When I moved back to the United States in 2000, I spent a few years doing aerobic competitions.
I started running three years ago; it gave me the flexibility to squeeze in exercise whenever I had free time, in the afternoon or on weekend mornings. I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, and do most of my running in Central Park, by myself or with a few friends. I did my first half marathon, the NYC Half, in 2018, and I loved it.
Since then I’ve been doing a race every month, mostly through the New York Road Runners. I ran the NYC Marathon for the first time last fall, after volunteering for eight years as a doctor in the medical tent. Earlier this spring, I’d been running four times a week, 25 to 30 miles weekly, training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon (which was canceled due to the coronavirus).
When I started running, my pace was around an 11-minute mile. Last August, I ran the Percy Sutton Harlem 5K in 29:21, a 9:27 pace. In February, I ran the Washington Heights Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K in 29:57.
But on March 21, I went for a run and noticed my pace was close to 12 minutes per mile at what felt like the same effort as a 10-minute mile. My heart rate, which is usually between 120 and 130 when I run, went up to 150. I immediately thought, ‘There’s something wrong.’ Later that same day, I developed a fever, headache, and fatigue. The running seemed to make everything flare up.
The fever lasted four days; the headache and the fatigue lasted almost two weeks. I’ve never been so sick in my life. I had some chest tightness too, though fortunately, never shortness of breath.
On day eight of experiencing symptoms, my food started tasting too salty, even if I hadn’t put any salt on it. It’s something we see in many patients—either they can’t taste anything, or the food tastes either too salty or spicy. Some people will complain that the applesauce they’re eating is too spicy.
The next day, I lost my sense of smell. I always put on perfume in the morning, but on that day I couldn’t tell I had any on, so I put on more. My daughter said, “Mom, you put on a lot.” After that I kept trying to smell everything—the food I’d cooked, the shampoos and creams in my bathroom—but I couldn’t. My loss of smell confirmed it; even though I hadn’t been tested yet, I knew I had COVID-19.
The virus seems to affect your central nervous system in some way—that’s why you lose your sense of smell and taste. This can also contribute to vertigo, the sensation that things are spinning around you. Another effect of COVID-19 is increasing blood pressure. Mine is usually low, about 110 over 60. But testing it at home, my readings came back at 170 over 90. We don’t know why this is, but we think it’s related to the ACE receptor that the virus binds to in the body.
After 10 days, I got incredibly dizzy, and I felt like I would fall every time I stood up. Dizziness is an indicator of dropping oxygen levels, so I monitored mine with a device called a pulse oximeter, which I had at home. Though my oxygen levels remained normal, this symptom scared me, because I knew there have been strokes reported in young patients with COVID-19.
This pushed me to visit an urgent care clinic, where I received a COVID-19 test—and it came back positive.
I treated myself at home with rest, water, and over-the-counter medications—Pepcid and Zyrtec. Some of my infectious disease colleagues have found these drugs decrease what’s called a cytokine storm, a severe immune response to coronavirus in which the body attacks its own tissues. I’m not sure if it worked, but I never had to be hospitalized.
I slept probably 14 hours a day—on my stomach, a technique called proning, which is supposed to reduce respiratory symptoms. When I was awake, I would check my vitals every two hours.
On about day 18, I was able to walk a few blocks before I got dizzy. I worked up to three blocks, four blocks, then two miles of walking. Finally, on April 25—more than a month after my last run—I was able to run again.
On that run, I took it easy; my pace was still close to 12 minutes per mile. But I’ve been feeling stronger now, and my pace and heart rate are coming down. My blood pressure is lower, and my sense of taste and smell returned, too. I’ve been taking a baby aspirin every other day to reduce the risk of clotting. But otherwise, I’m feeling good.
After I recovered, I was called by the New York Medical Reserve Corps—where I’ve volunteered for years—to work in two hospitals hit hard by COVID-19 patient in New York City. I was working eight- to 10-hour shifts five days a week between the two hospitals.
The hospital in Queens was one of the hardest hit, in part because of the diversity of the community. The patients were about 80 percent Hispanic, mostly men. I would see them in the emergency room, and then follow them to the floors to talk to them and see how they were doing.
Many were not doing well. It’s so hard when you know they’re probably not going to make it. You’re going to do your best, but your best sometimes is not enough. Patients were still dying, despite doctors doing their best. And their families couldn’t come to talk to them or hold their hands.
I was one of the few Spanish-speaking doctors, so I had to call many of the families. They were often so surprised, because the person was fine a few days before, and then suddenly they weren’t. You see the family crying on the screen, and you see a little kid in the background—and that makes me think of my own kids and see myself as the patient.
Coping was challenging. I had nightmares. I cried with my sister, who’s also a doctor. Running has helped so much; while outside, I can keep your mind from dwelling on it.
Here in New York, the doctors, residents, and nurses have seen a lot. When I was doing my fellowship at SUNY Downstate, I did rotations in Kings County (the county for the borough of Brooklyn). We saw all kinds of diseases, including tuberculosis, dengue, and leprosy.
Working in the hospitals at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was different. It was more like when I went to medical school in Venezuela, working in emergency rooms in wartime. Doctors are running from one person to another, and you don’t even know who to save first or what to tell the person.
Fortunately, we’ve turned a corner in New York City. Things have calmed down, and volunteers aren’t necessary at those hospitals anymore. I’m waiting for a new assignment.
Meanwhile, I also gave back by donating my plasma at the Red Cross, for Mount Sinai Hospital. They’ll treat patients with it and study what happens. They should have initial results sometime in the next few months. I knew that if I recovered I would have antibodies. We’re not sure how long these antibodies will protect you from future infections, or at what levels, but researchers are studying it. They used plasma from recovered patients to treat Ebola, and there’s some suggestion that a similar treatment might work for coronavirus too.
I’m so grateful that I’m back to running now, but I’m also glad I stopped when I did. Runners—or any type of athlete—sometimes don’t listen to our bodies the same way other people do, because we’re used to pushing through pain. Running will improve your immune system over time, but if you’re already sick, it may make things worse.
If you’re feeling fatigued or have a sore throat or fever, rest instead. The miles you miss, you can recover them, you can run the races later. But not if you don’t make it through.
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