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I Had One of the Earliest Cases of COVID-19 — I Think

A first-person account of a mysterious illness that arrived in January and soon spread through this Plano resident's family.
By Carolyn Sullivan |

My family thought I was crazy for believing I had COVID-19. Then they started getting sick, too.

The first confirmed case of the disease in the U.S. appeared in Washington State on January 21. But we are beginning to learn that many more people were infected even then, without suspecting it.

I can never know for certain, since I did not get the nasal swab for coronavirus until April, but all signs point to my being an early case of the illness that has caused our country to go into mass quarantine. I find safety in learning the facts and peace in believing we will find a vaccine at some point. But in the meantime, uncertainty and fear will dominate our national psyche—just as they did for my family—until we start testing on a much bigger scale.

It all started when I flew to New York City from my home in Dallas in mid-January to care for my 21-year old daughter, who had become extremely ill with Dengue fever, acquired in the Caribbean earlier that month.

I had never seen an emergency room so crowded. The first time we visited, my daughter was one of four people being treated in a hallway for 10 hours. She was in the hospital for six days altogether.

On January 16, I woke up with chest tightness, chills, and a terrible cough. It felt like I was being choked. My symptoms were not debilitating, though, and I had energy to clean my daughter’s apartment and sit with her at the hospital.

At first, I attributed my physical symptoms to fear and anxiety for my child. I called my doctor in Dallas, who prescribed Tamiflu. My daughter got better and was released. I returned home with a cough, still laboring to get a full breath. Weeks later, I still had no energy.

Then, on February 22, my 16-year old son woke up in the middle of the night with a high fever. He tested negative for the flu but was sick for 15 days.

My husband was next. He had the same flu-like symptoms as my son, but for 20 days. Then my symptoms returned—and I got an eye infection, for good measure—for six days. After my daughter came home from college in New York in March, she got sick, too.

I began to worry. By this time, coronavirus was all over the news. Could I have gotten it in that New York ER? Could I have spread it to the rest of my family? It dawned on me that I had gone to see my niece in Longview on January 25. Three days later, she got an illness that lasted three weeks. Her flu test came back negative.

I now wish I could have been tested for coronavirus when I felt symptomatic through February, but no tests were available. Everyone assumed the virus had not spread beyond the West Coast. With contact tracing, I could have helped others. Though I was so exhausted in February, I barely left my house.

My family took an antibody test in April, after we all recovered. Two out of the five of us, including me, were positive for immunoglobulin antibodies, a sign of having been infected with coronavirus. The test cannot determine exactly when I got it. And some of us who got very sick tested negative. So much is still uncertain.

The only thing I’m sure of is that my family caught this disease long before anyone knew what it was, just as our whole country did. We were lucky. We received good healthcare, and we are all fine now.

As a country, we are only going to get through the crisis the way my family did: with care, love, and a willingness to adapt in the face of uncertainty.

Carolyn Sullivan is a Plano resident and a certified mediator and life strategist with a BA in psychology and advanced studies in Domestic Dispute Resolution, as well as Dispute Resolution, from Southern Methodist University. She wrote this column for D Magazine.

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