What It’s Like to Have a Touch of COVID

Yes, I’m vaccinated. Thank god for modern science.

A photo of a syringe might be more appropriate, but because I’m a fainter I’m going with a photo of a dark Brahma chicken by Noah Kalina, with his permission.

It might have started with fatigue. Or body aches. Or maybe a little rawness in my throat which, weirdly, lasted for about an hour before fading. They were the sort of symptoms you dismiss as the result of a bad night’s sleep, or maybe allergies, so it wasn’t until I had a bite of a peanut butter sandwich that I knew something was wrong.

It didn’t taste like peanut butter. It wasn’t terrible or anything, just unfamiliar. I had no congestion at all, so my senses weren’t dulled or blocked. It was as if my tastebuds had been reprogrammed.

I’d never experienced anything like that before.

COVID crossed my mind, but I live in a rural area, the sort of place where everyone lives a few acres apart. I left the city a few years ago to move up here with my partner and during the first few months of the pandemic, when NYC was hit especially hard, we watched in horror, muttering how lucky we were to live in a place with more deer than people and how grateful we were not to be trapped in our old apartment.

We knew we were still at risk. There might be fewer people up here but there are also fewer hospitals. Even a small spike could overwhelm the system. So we masked and socially distanced and did the curbside pickup thing, and when a vaccine became available, we booked an appointment the next morning and, to our relief, saw many of our neighbors in the waiting area.

The peanut butter incident happened after all of this. I’d been working from home, writing.

Then my partner mentioned that the guy who’d built our fence had just come down with COVID. He was in the hospital with symptoms and tested positive. And that’s when I remembered that I’d spoken to him exactly five days earlier.

I used to play this game on my tablet called Plague, Inc., which is based on pandemic simulations using realistic variables. When COVID appeared, I’d played that game so many times that I immediately searched for information on transmission rates and lethality so I could visualize how it might play out, like I was an expert epidemiologist.

It was silly — I knew that. My entire understanding of pandemics is limited to the movie Contagion (2011) and a game where your goal is to mutate a disease until it wipes out the global population. Still, I spent those early months checking to see whether COVID was transmitted through droplets or aerosols because that’s how you level up. From a plague perspective.

But there were two things that pandemic simulator failed to consider. First, it worked from the assumption that once people knew there was a pandemic afoot, transmission rates would drop dramatically as everyone began to take precautions. In reality, I watched grown adults throw toddler-grade temper tantrums over bare-minimum masking requirements.

Second, those simulations also assumed that once a vaccine was discovered, everyone would be eager to get it, eventually wiping out the disease. Instead, people have whipped up fantasies of microchips and forced sterilization to justify fighting tooth-and-nail to not get it.

This mystifies me because I’m a fainter. I will do anything within my power to avoid being in the presence of a syringe. I don’t mind getting a shot or being pricked by needles, but I do mind passing out.

It’s an awful feeling. Sometimes it happens so quickly, I wake up confused, in a cold sweat, but more often my senses drop out one by one, like a gradual death, until I lose control of my body entirely and drop like an abandoned marionette. And coming back to consciousness is worse. There’s nothing quite like the vulnerability you feel as your body comes back to life, sense by sense and limb by limb, as strangers look down at you to see if you’re dead.

And I don’t just faint around needles, I faint when people talk about needles, I faint when there’s B-roll footage of vaccinations on loop during a news story, I faint in movie theaters when a syringe makes an unexpected appearance. It’s not great. It makes me feel like a corseted Victorian with a weak constitution.

And yet, I got the vaccine as soon as my state made it available for my age group. And I went back for round two. And if there’s a booster, I’ll get that too. In a heartbeat. Because I’d rather pass out than end up on a ventilator, sucking up medical resources from other patients because of a largely preventable disease.

At least when you faint, you eventually wake up.

Two Brahma hens and a Brahma rooster by Noah Kalina, with permission.

The day I caught COVID, I was sitting on the grass with a chicken in my lap. Some of our chickens are like cats — they want to be held but only when they’re in the mood and only when it’s on their own terms, and when it happens, I accept my role as a lap provider. This particular chicken stuck her head in my armpit and went to sleep, and that’s when Jack — the guy who built our fence — pulled up in his pick-up.

I didn’t go inside to grab a mask because I had a chicken in my lap. That, and I was pretty sure he was vaccinated, too. We were outside in the open air. It seemed fine.

Jack stood about eight feet away while we chatted, which was probably habit at this point. We talked about the deer and the apple trees and the fact my chicken liked to sleep with her head under my arm, then he grabbed the tools he’d left behind and took off.

The symptoms came on five days later, when Jack was in the hospital, and lasted for about a week and a half.

My lungs were fine. I was never congested and I never developed a cough. But I had other symptoms, all minor, which would last for about six hours, disappear, then reappear a few days later.

I experienced fatigue, muscle soreness, body aches, brain fog, a vaguely sore throat, a distortion of taste and smell, and then — and this is probably specific to me and my weird heart — sudden sharp heart palpitations.

All that fainting I mentioned? It’s because I have low blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat due to some structural problem I was born with. My heart’s fine at keeping me alive but occasionally drops the ball at keeping me conscious and if my body’s fighting a viral infection, it can go haywire.

That’s the thing I worry about.

And I should say that there are heart palpitations, like a little flutter in the chest, and then there are heart palpitations, when your heart goes rogue and actively tries to kill you, accelerating to the speed of hummingbird wings. After the second shot (Moderna), I woke up at one in the morning with my heart beating so fast I whispered, “Oh shit.” But then it stopped, I went back to sleep, and it never bothered me again.

Once I had a touch of COVID, the palpitations came back as an unnerving reminder that if I hadn’t been vaccinated, I’d almost certainly be one of the unlucky ones.

I remember one of them hit when I was walking across the room. I paused mid-step until it passed, which happened in a matter of seconds. I breathed a sigh of relief and kept walking.

Another hit while I was lying down. It was also brief — only fifteen seconds or so — but it was another unpleasantly punchy reminder of my mortality.

I can’t claim to fully understand the science behind mRNA vaccines, but I do understand that they train our immune systems how to tackle COVID, so while my symptoms were mild, I was quietly rooting for my body to pull this off without exploding my twitchy heart.

And then it passed. I could taste peanut butter again. My heart was calm. The weird aches and soreness were gone, like it had never happened.

My partner experienced almost no symptoms at all. He had a slightly raw throat for maybe half a day and that’s it.

So if you haven’t gotten the vaccine or if you’re on the fence about it, get it. And don’t assume that standing outside a fair distance apart is enough. Wear a mask.

And Jack is okay. It turned out he was vaccinated like I’d thought. He had a breakthrough infection stronger than mine, but it passed quickly. He self-isolated a bit and went back to work.