To the 90 and counting

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I thought that my dream was quite humorous that night. In my sleep, I dreamt that I had contracted COVID-19, except Lawrence had no more quarantine space. So naturally, those with the virus isolated by camping out on Main Hall Green. 

I thought that my dream was quite unrealistic that night…until it partly wasn’t. I felt feverish by afternoon. The strange cough came a few hours later. By evening, my head and muscles ached so badly that I couldn’t move my eyes. 

It seemed that my subconscious knew something I didn’t that night because I received my positive test result two days later, at the ideal time of the middle of the night. I was confused, devastated and terrified all at once. Being left to ruminate on these feelings until the rest of the world woke up, I spent the night retracing my steps over the past two weeks, wondering where I went wrong. 

Following the honor code was a minimum for me. I double-masked everywhere. I grabbed multiple meals each time I went to Warch to limit my exposure. My knuckles were scabbed from hand sanitizer over-usage. Each time I stepped out of my dorm room, an awareness of COVID-19 was at the forefront of my mind. I treated the virus like it was on everything I touched and in everyone I encountered. Yet, that wasn’t enough.  

I blamed myself, because if you truly do everything correctly, you can’t get the virus, right? There must have been something I did wrong. Such a small misstep, whatever it was, and a terrible set of permanent chain reactions were set off. What if I infected someone who won’t make it? What if I just set off a domino effect of hundreds of infections? What if I end up with irreversible damage? 

The guilt I felt was exacerbated by the shame that I was now in the same category as the people that we, as a globe, had just spent the past year shunning. Those who partied, ate at restaurants, went to bars and traveled to risky places for leisure. They’re the sort of irresponsible people that we expect to get the virus, and I felt ashamed to be facing the same consequences as them. 

During a time in my life when I needed the most support, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone beyond those necessary. While I knew that I had done everything I was supposed to, those outside of my closest circle did not. I feared the judgement that would come with the inevitable false assumptions, so I did my best to cover up my sudden two-week disappearance. 

Beyond the spiraling thoughts that came with contracting the virus, fighting it off was a whole other challenge. I counted down the days until the virus would supposedly be out of me. I told myself I just needed to hang in there a bit longer. The migraines, fatigue,  shortness of breath, coughing, loss of taste and smell, insomnia and the brain fog would all stop…until that day came and went, without taking my symptoms with it. 

Moving out of Kohler was supposed to be a joyous day, except it was anything but that. It took the entire day to carry just a few loads back to my dorm and up a couple of flights of stairs. With each trip, I watched my oxygen levels drop to unnatural levels as I struggled to breathe. A simple walk across campus and up a few stairs warranted hours of shaking, coughing, gasping for air and sleeping. It was then that I realized my body was not the same anymore, and I had no idea if or when it would be back. 

Though my experience with the virus may seem rare or unusual for a young person, it isn’t uncommon. Data from the CDC indicates that one out of every three COVID-19 patients who were not hospitalized have long-term illness. When I saw my doctor, she wasn’t surprised by my issues, stating that almost all of her long-term COVID-19 patients are incredibly young.   

There are 90 students and counting on campus who have had COVID-19. Statistically, I am not the only one here who is continuing life at Lawrence with long-term virus effects. 

While I am grateful for the support I received during my initial bout of the virus, I feel lost now that I am expected to be normal again when I’m not. Brain fog, fatigue, headaches, insomnia and more—all common ongoing symptoms—can make school feel like an impossible task. Yet, despite their commonality, they are rarely talked about or recognized. Instead, I feel irresponsible and lazy when I cannot live up to the academic responsibilities I once used to. Without the discussion and recognition of long-term COVID-19 effects, I and many others are left to navigate the struggles of academics without guidance. 

Going about life after COVID-19 feels like a grieving process that happens over and over again. Seeing anything related to the virus had a different impact now that it is personal. 

Every time I use the inhaler that I now need four times a day, I feel angry at myself for not trying just a little bit harder to be more cautious. Every time I read the news, articles about the virus are inescapable. I see titles like “Large-Scale Study Finds One-Third of COVID-19 Patients Suffer Neurological Damage” or “Researchers fear effects from COVID-19 heart damage could show up years in the future” and am constantly reminded that this horrid and unpredictable thing exists inside of me now. Every time I open social media to see other people traveling or going out, I become ashamed and bitter that I got it and they didn’t. 

Even positive news about the virus can spark sadness. When we received a recent email about the university keeping the infection rate below 1%, my initial proudness of Lawrence was quickly overtaken by a spiral of negative emotions. I felt baffled at the fact that the chance was so ridiculously low, yet it happened. I felt bitter at the fact that I now knew just how statistically probable it is for me to have a “normal” body right now, yet I don’t. 

As we head into the post-pandemic world, it is important to remember that there are 90 students and counting who may not be returning to normalcy with their pre-COVID bodies. It is crucial to offer support—not assumptions or judgement—as they navigate the struggles of this unknown virus. In addition to the already existing pandemic struggles, 90 students and counting are learning to cope with the fact that the effects of the virus will remain even after the pandemic is gone.   

There is currently not much support for students who contracted the virus both within and outside of Lawrence. We don’t know who one another are because it is still too stigmatized to speak about. Going forward, it is important for dialogue to open up and for support to be given to the 90 students who have had COVID-19.