The Covid symptom I wasn’t prepared for

Jane Siberry’s “It Can’t Rain All the Time” from The Crow

Actually, there were two of them.

The first is total loss of sense of time and place. I kinda remember when I first started feeling what might have been symptoms—to find out soon enough that they most certainly were. And I remember calling the doctor and getting tested and  going to the emergency room and then a quarantine hotel and then being sent to the hospital and not leaving my bed, even to go to the bathroom, for over a week before they finally discharged me on New Year’s Eve, thank god in time to hear Sandy Bernhard perform a brief concert solo from her living room.

But I do distinctly remember when I first wept openly—Friday the 18th. It was that day I was diagnosed at CityMD.

Trying to piece it all together now, I had gone to the gym the Sunday before (Dec. 13), then that night started experiencing chills, then fever, then aches and pains. I had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on other health issues for Wednesday, but by Tuesday I realized maybe I shouldn’t come in. I called and they said it was okay, but that maybe I should go to the emergency room as a precaution. I figured I’d be good for one night, and when I did come in the next day, they put me alone in an office to talk to the doc by computer. He sent me to pick up a couple over-the-counter things and said I should get tested.

I walked over to CityMD on 42nd Street (five blocks or so) Thursday afternoon—the day of the big snowstorm—and couldn’t get in. So I went back early Friday morning—it was in the fucking 20s—and had to stand there in line, miserable and freezing, for two hours, 14 people ahead of me. My toes and fingers were frozen, and when I finally did get in, I was shivering for half an hour while they tested me for Covid, flu and pneumonia. I figured the Covid was positive when the guy started asking me where I’d been.

A chest X-ray was clear, but the doctor was emphatic that I go straight to the emergency room—by ambulance. I told her I didn’t have that kind of money, but she was insistent, and made me feel like an asshole for not freaking out the way she was. I told her I could easily walk from 42nd to 60th—Mount Sinai West—but she couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t drop dead on the way.

I didn’t. They didn’t even keep me long, since my oxygen was fine. They said I should just quarantine and everything should be okay.

It wouldn’t be.

The next day I really must have started feeling it. In addition to the other symptoms, I started coughing pretty bad. I think maybe it was Monday that I got a follow-up call from the City, where they told me about the quarantine hotels. They said they’d send a car to pick me up and take me to one if I wanted, where I’d have a room and food and nursing care. Sounded perfect.

It would have been Tuesday night (the 22nd), then, when they brought me to LaGuardia Plaza across from the airport. I was admitted and got to my room probably around 11 p.m. They sent food up but I wasn’t hungry; I don’t think I’d eaten anything for a week, actually. Nauseous, and no appetite.

They came around every few hours to check on me, and in the morning a nurse started asking questions that I must not have answered very well, because she sent me to the hospital—but not before instructing me to leave my belongings—a few changes of underwear and t-shirts, toiletries, and unfortunately, my gym lock, scattered on the other bed in the room alongside the old but still usable black DAKINE gym duffle.

I did think it was an odd demand, especially since she also said I would not be returning and that they would send everything to me. But by now I was so confused I went along with it. I do thank the gods for leaving me enough sense to take my computer bag, which had my laptop and chargers and a few important papers. To this day I haven’t received the fucking gym duffle and its contents, and no one ever gets back to me when I call the hotel.

And now for an aside: As so often happens with personal articles like these, they can be written over a period of days, if not weeks, months and even years. As I write this now, it’s the midafternoon of Jan. 14. I’ve been trying—and failing–for three weeks to retrieve my gym bag and its contents, for as I’m sure you’ve guessed, they never did send them to me. In fact, two weeks ago when I called on Jan. 2, they told me that they never would have said not to take it with me! They also said they’d get back to me after they found them.

I waited a week before trying again. This time I got a very nice young woman, who assured me she’d look into it and get right back to me. And now today, a week later, I called her again: My name sounded familiar, she said, upon which I refilled her in. It all came back quickly. Of course she had dropped the ball, and I told her how very disappointed I was in her, for which she was most genuinely apologetic. She put me on hold, and when she returned, explained that she’d been on the phone with the “site manager” at the hotel and that I should call him now, that they had my belongings. I think I actually believed that, and if I did I must still be gravely ill.

For when I called, the guy didn’t seem to know who I was or why I was calling. And he wasn’t very happy when he found out. Then again, neither was I.

As I said, I had gotten to my room at the hotel around 11 p.m. I was not given a key as the door would remain unlocked, they explained, so they could come in periodically to check on me. Early the next morning the nurse sent me to the hospital in an ambulance. Up until then, I hadn’t once left the room, and without a key, had no means of knowing what my room number was, let alone what floor I was on. They’d just opened the door the night before and I went in and shut it.

The site manager found this unacceptable, that I didn’t know what room I was in or the floor. Things escalated pretty quickly to a near shouting match, as it was clear he didn’t know who I was or where my things were, and I couldn’t understand how it was possible that there was apparently no record of what room they admitted me into–let alone where my belongings, which I was told to leave, were. It peaked when he asked me if I had Covid when I was admitted—a question I thought was insane. Yes, I yelled. That’s why I was there! This quieted him down, since if I was admitted with Covid, he said, I had to be on one of floors 4 through 7. Complaining that he had a lot to do, he said he’d get to it and get back to me. I described the bag, and spent the rest of the day waiting for him to call.

I’m still waiting….

When they carried me out to the ambulance, they took me to a Mount Sinai hospital in Queens, good in that I’m under care of a Mt. Sinai cardiologist for severe heart failure—another story that I might go into here at some point as a companion to “Cancer Funnies” (“Heart Failure Follies,” maybe?). I got there and they carted me into a glass-doored room just off the nursing station, where they laid me out onto a wheeled bed and began a day full of tests including a chest X-ray, CAT scan (they wheeled me to another room for that one), blood and vitals. I had a TV with a handset that controlled the channels and had a little speaker in it, and a bathroom, which I used a number of times until late in the day when a nurse came in with an opaque plastic, angled pitcher-like object with a handle, which I thought was a fancy water bottle. It kind of was actually—except it was a handheld urinal that she not only explained to me how to use (in this case, standing up), but stood behind me, I guess to offer emotional support and encouragement while I gave it a go; I found the whole experience odd but again, didn’t ask any questions, as by now I was deep in the Twilight Zone.

But I hadn’t had any real conversation with any of the nurses and doctors the entire day until now, and now it was getting late in the evening. The nurse said they needed to find me a room, which I figured would be in the hospital I was in. Nope. A couple hours later—after midnight—another crew came in and wheeled me into another ambulance, and we were off to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai/St. Luke’s—or Morningside—at Columbia University, though I didn’t really know where I was. Lying in the ambulance and looking out the rear window I could see us turn into a major street with colorful Christmas decorations strung above. From the colors I guessed it was the 1-2-5 in Harlem, and sure enough when we turned off I could see that the first one said, “Welcome to 125th Street.”

It was around 2 AM, Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), when they wheeled me into what seemed to be a dead hospital. There were guards who let us through the entrance, but I didn’t see anyone in the empty halls as they pushed me through, finally turning me into a room and setting me up on the far side, next to another occupant who was asleep and separated by a curtain. I hadn’t spent the night in such a room in a general hospital since I spent a month in the psyche ward of Madison General back in Madison, Wis. 50 years ago.

So now it’s Christmas Eve Day—very early morning. When the night nurse got me out of my clothes and into a gown and made my bed and explained how it worked, I was on my back until New Year’s Eve. They didn’t even want me to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Rather, they gave me another plastic urinal (which I learned how to use in bed), and brought a portable, personal “commode” to the side of the bed. Jesus, I thought. I hadn’t sat on one of those, probably, since I was two-years-old.

The nurse also showed me how to use the TV—same as at the first hospital. A doctor came in and asked me what they should do worst case scenario. I didn’t really have a good answer, because he didn’t give me a lot of options. Obviously, I didn’t want to end up a fucking vegetable and I think I conveyed at least that much, for they never brought it up again. I did tell him that I’m an organ donor, but should have mentioned that if anything was left over they should just dump it all in Potter’s Field.

I found MSNBC on the TV and since they didn’t have TCM or MeTV and I didn’t want to mess around with it, it stayed there for the next week. This indeed posed a problem: Between Christmas and New Year’s, MSNBC is a wasteland. All you get are all-night reruns of their documentaries and tabloid crime investigations, but very little fresh news programming, even during the day. Worse, is you really see how awful the commercials are—over and over and over again. I’m talking about drugs for ancients like me, of course, but also cars, insurance, both cars and insurance (CarShield), charities…and Satan dating? WTF!

Yes, I, too, marveled at that oven that uses light and heats your dinner in, what, half a second? But did I have to see it every fucking five minutes? I’ll admit, though, that even the meat dishes started to look good for this hospitalized vegan. At least I said I was vegan, but that only brought me a carton of milk with every meal, and as often as not, a chicken dish. Otherwise it was all veggie burgers–cold veggie burgers. By the end of the second day all I could think of was the chocolate cake that never came.

I should mention that they provided little cans of Shasta ginger ale. Shasta! I hadn’t had that probably since the psyche ward. Impressed they were still around.

Of course, I had my laptop, and I’d brought along a lot of work that I’d figured I’d be well enough to do at the quarantine hotel. But lying in bed for a week, I suffered from extreme malaise. Every couple hours I’d check emails and news sites, Twitter and Facebook, and that was about it, that is, until I remembered that Amazon Prime was showing the final 10 episodes of Vikings, but that wasn’t until Dec. 30—though I was able to watch the first four before discharge.

There was always Trump/election news, of course, and the one huge story: the Nashville bombing. But like with all such events, there was very little news that could be gleaned quickly other than casualty count and damage estimate. But I started my career in Nashville in the late 1970s, covering country music. I haven’t been there in years, but I know the downtown very well, and was horrified.

I have a friend who was likewise horrified. I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to exaggerate—overexaggerate—my artist friends, name-dropping them frequently in vain effort to maintain the mirage of my longlost visibility and viability in music journalism. But I won’t identify this friend other than to say that he in fact is quite noteworthy, but he was emailing me because he apparently thought he’d emailed me earlier by mistake in trying to reach a mutual Nashville friend.

I’d purposefully kept my illness and hospitalization pretty quiet. I mean, I was kind of embarrassed: How could I have gotten it? I wear a mask all the time, keep my social distance, wash my hands. God knows I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anyone in 10 months–like all of us–though I’d worked the entire early voting poll period and didn’t get it then.

But also, I didn’t know how this thing was going to end. I mean, we were already at 3,000 Covid deaths a day, and I came in at 68 with severe heart failure. Perhaps Potter’s Field, located in the northeastern Bronx on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, was really just around the corner. I sure didn’t want anyone freaking out, then freaking me out even more. My sister and brother knew, and my best friends—some of whom are also quite well known and will remain anonymous here.

I did have my cell phone, but I had a charger that only worked intermittently, so I used it sparingly, mainly to respond to texts or see if I had any calls. Besides, I had intense coughing fits: One time I actually fainted and when I came to, freaked the fuck out when I couldn’t find my laptop. I finally looked down and there it was on the fucking floor! I’d knocked it over, but thank god, it was okay! Nothing broke (so glad it has Gorilla Glass!), and I went back to doing next to nothing with it.

They were giving me cough medicine, of course, and five or six pills including Torsemide—for high blood pressure. It’s a diuretic and makes you piss like there’s no tomorrow, since I retain water in my swollen, discolored elephantine legs and feet—my initial symptoms three years ago, when an older doctor at my poor people’s clinic (she hated me), was experienced enough to detect the subtle sound of aortic regurgitation that the younger docs, probably in their short-term first jobs, had missed.

That’s what I have: severe aortic regurgitation, where the heart pumps blood into the aorta, and in my weird case, the aorta pumps it back into the heart. I believe there’s an aneurysm in there somewhere as well. Only a matter of time, I gather.

Torsemide. Where do they come up with these drug names? Someone must be making a shitload of money spending their days dreaming up the stupidest drug names, same with conceiving the dumbest commercials to promote them (starting with Ozempic’s “Magic”). I must say, though, that my legs and feet contracted to normal for the first time in years, but my guess is that it’s because I was lying in bed the whole time: It only took a couple days back home before my feet swelled up so bad I could only get into a pair of sneakers so old they’re barely held together.

They also must have had me on antibiotics. I had an IV in my arm that when a nurse changed bled all over the bed. They took blood at least once a day to where my arms and hands were black-and-blue, and they tested blood pressure and temperature at least four times a day. They also gave me a blood thinner shot each morning.

I had to sip water and Shasta very carefully since I was always supine (though I could and did mechanically raise my back more upright when I needed to eat or check the computer), so as not to spark a coughing fit by trickling down the wrong pipe. And because of the Torsemide I had to urinate every 10 minutes or so. It got to the point where a nurse would walk in and I’d be lying there with my dick in the urinal and neither of us thought anything of it, though in retrospect, I’m glad it was opaque.

And by chance, if I’d made a “Number Two,” I’d point to the potty, like I was an embarrassed toddler, and would only nod my head when the nurse asked, “Number Two?” By this point I probably had regressed to being an embarrassed toddler.

But back to the few emails and phone calls from friends, and finally, that second Covid symptom I mentioned at the top that they don’t tell you about, that I couldn’t identify at the outset.

It was Friday the 18th again, the day I was first diagnosed. I was okay that night at home, and was excited to tune in online to Betty in Concert—Stuck at Home for the Holidays.

If you don’t know who Betty is, you most certainly should: Three most wonderful female musicians (Amy Ziff, cello; sister Elizabeth Ziff, guitar; Alyson Palmer, bass) who write and sing often uproarious songs—–many topical, many satirical, all falling under the “SoConPop” (socially conscious pop) rubric.

They’re also feminist/political activists, whose organization The Betty Effect fosters self-advocacy to advance social change, with an emphasis on helping women and girls, the LGBTQ community, and arts activists, worldwide.

I’ve gone to Betty’s holiday shows for years, and they’re always a joy. They also always star special guest Gloria Steinem, who is gloriously brought out at the end to deliver a “Top 10” list relating in some way to the state of our disunion. I’ve always remembered one year, probably right before the 2016 election, when she concluded with, “Remember: Adolf Hitler came to power in a democratic election with low voter turnout.”

I’ve been a Betty fan a long time, and if I remember correctly, they were guests at a Jane Siberry show when I first saw them. At Betty’s Stuck at Home for the Holidays show, Jane was one of their special guests, appearing from home to join them in singing her best-known song, “Calling All Angels.”

Jumping ahead for a moment, now that I’m out of the hospital two weeks, I’m a lot better—though I still have a bad cough if I’m talking on the phone. And I’m still slower and weaker than I’d like, but picking up speed, at least, when I do go outside. Today, actually, was the first day I managed to climb all four flights of steps to my top-floor walk-up without stopping, though I was panting heavily when I got to the top.

When the ambulance brought me home New Year’s Eve, the driver insisted upon accompanying me to my floor. I tried to wave him off, certain it would be no prob. I hadn’t taken under consideration the fact that I hadn’t been out of bed for over a week until that afternoon. I’m glad he stayed with me, because when I got to the first floor I thought I was going to die. I had to sit down for five minutes before I caught my breath, then repeated the rest stop after each flight until I made it to my door—then took 10 minutes on the steps to the roof before having enough strength to open my door.

There was a box outside my door, from the city. It had a thermometer, package of masks, bottle of hand sanitizer, and a “pulse oximeter”—one of those finger gadgets that tell you what your oxygen is. Took me a while to figure it out, since I’m long past too old to read the tiny print on the instructions. Turns out I put the batteries in wrong! I had to download an app for my phone so I could enter in all kinds of stuff that a Mt. Sinai physical therapist monitors daily, i.e., oxygen level, temperature, ease of breathing, etc. He Zooms me every Wednesday to make sure I’m okay.

Before I went to the hospital, my cardiologist had me taking Torsemide and a couple other pills, but my discharge papers showed that they’d reduced the Torsemide dosage and cut out the other stuff. In addition to prescribing the lower Torsemide, they prescribed two days of steroids. What they didn’t do was check to make sure the pharmacy was open New Year’s Day, which it wasn’t. Oh, well….

I thought maybe I should call the cardiologist on Monday (Jan. 4) and make sure he knew about the new medication. I don’t think he did, and I don’t think he knew I’d been hospitalized. He wasn’t happy about either, and instead of waiting for me to come in at the end of the month as planned (three months after my last appointment), he rushed me in on Thursday, when, looking at my hospital records, he told me something they didn’t tell me at the hospital: I’d had double Covid pneumonia. This explained the couple instances of coughing up blood.

As you can imagine, cardio was now even less happy, and ordered me to see a pulmonary guy to make sure there wasn’t additional lung damage (before Covid, the heart condition was already putting pressure on them). But first I had to see a hematologist.

I’d seen hematologists off and on for maybe 15 years depending on whether I had insurance. It was a borderline, “Come back in three months” low platelet situation. When I went in last week, the doc explained that—as usual—mine was an unusual case: Usually when there’s a blood disorder, all three blood cells—red, white and platelet—are affected, I guess because they all come from the same place (bone marrow). With me, only the platelets were low, a cause for concern in that the platelets are involved in blood clotting: As my cardiologist has suggested–maybe not in this way—if he decides to cut me open, he doesn’t want me to bleed out on the table.

So my platelet count, which fluctuates, was actually fine last week, so it was “Come back in three months.” But the intake doctor was remarkably thorough in interviewing me, especially in light of my Covid situation. When she was done, I felt compelled to address one symptom she didn’t ask about—that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere.

“I don’t know if this is worth noting,” I said, slowly and softly, “but I’ll say that I’m really a very cold person. I don’t give a shit about anyone or anything. But for some reason, when I came down with Covid, I became ridiculously sentimental and emotional and started crying uncontrollably, usually over nothing.” Male menopause, maybe? No, I’m way too old.

Well, maybe not over nothing. And cold as I am, I will say that I always cry at movies (if I’m with someone I try hard to hide it), and I always cry when I hear certain female vocalists, including Jane Siberry, Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee, Maria Callas. And speaking of Callas, I always cry during opera curtain calls: Something about having experienced the performances of people who have devoted their entire lives to the ultimate performance art, and given us in the audience every ounce of what they have for three-plus hours.

So returning to the Betty holiday show, when they started bringing on the night’s special guests, and began introducing the first one as someone they all dearly loved, who had always been so kind and supportive in promoting them and including them in her own shows. I knew immediately that it was Jane—and I will say that not only am I a huge, huge Jane fan, but I’ve written liner notes on at least four of her albums (including her own incredible Christmas album), can be heard in a phone conversation she included on another one, and am thanked next to John Lennon on her biggest-selling album (I’m pretty sure), When I Was a Boy, on which is her most famous song “Calling All Angels.”

I must add, though, that Jane is also known to martial artists, for the heartbreaking song “It Can’t Rain All the Time,” which plays during the end-credits of The Crow—the Brandon Lee movie in which he tragically died accidentally.

“Calling All Angels,” which on When I Was a Boy is sung with Jane’s fellow Canadian great k.d. lang and somewhat famously appeared prominently in the movie Pay It Forward, opens with Jane invoking saints including Santa Maria and Santa Teresa, then calls on all angels to come help us. For this performance, however, Jane changed the opening saints to include the contemporary likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and frontline health workers. But even as soon as she appeared on camera I began weeping, overcome with emotion.

I emailed her immediately after: “Not sure why I’m so emotional all of a sudden but it’s probably illness related: diagnosed with COVID today. Looks like I’ll get through it ok, though the doc sent me immediately to the emergency room, and was afraid I might drop dead on the way.”

She responded, just as quickly: “How can one know if one can get through it ok? Your heart is broke open. And you remembered when you were watching us–your long-time friends–that you love life. And this has been a good one, difficult as it has been.”

Earlier, I mentioned the email from my unidentified friend. There were some others who are likely household names, depending of course on the house you live in. But he offered a similar explanation for my sudden Covid crying jags: “To be so overwhelmed by emotion is to be expected. You have truly been delivered back to your life and to your friends.”

Like I said, my cardiologist wasn’t happy. Besides ordering me to see the pulmonary doctor and hematologist, he now wanted to see me right away rather than wait a couple weeks to when I was scheduled to see him again, having done well enough on a heart stress echocardiogram test (an ultrasound examination of heart function during and following a brief treadmill workout) three months earlier.

I saw him on Jan. 7, when he scheduled a transthoracic echo test (a standard, no-stress echo, at rest) for two weeks after. Walking back from his office on W. 59th, I stopped at the High School of Environmental Studies on W. 56, one of two places where I go out to pick up free food every day—something I hadn’t done since getting sick three weeks ago.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened,” I said to the nice, very concerned woman who knows my diet and filled my empty shopping bag, one I picked up at Toy Fair a year ago.

I didn’t.

Not that it makes any difference, but she’s Black, maybe half my age. Kindness knows no color or calendar–though it does often come where you least expect it.

I turned the corner on to 10th Ave., my dilapidated Toy Fair bag scraping the sidewalk, since she’d filled it up with enough food to last a week. I then turned into CVS to pick up some cough medicine, tears streaming down my face.

3 thoughts on “The Covid symptom I wasn’t prepared for

  • January 16, 2021 at 11:28 pm
    Permalink

    i’m not famous. but i am a guy who went to the same high school with you, lo those many years ago, in Madison, Wisconsin. Jim – i just read your (very well written) story and wanted to reach out to say how glad i am to know that you survived this awful ordeal.

    your honest, unembellished account of a real person who’s just trying to survive “normal” life being thrown into this shitstorm and coming out the other end brings it all home to me how no one is exempt and everyone is living moment-to-moment – no matter what.

    ALL THE BEST TO YOU, JIM BESSMAN!

    dave benson

  • January 16, 2021 at 11:37 pm
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    Dave! But you’re a big radio guy! And so very sweet of you to read and respond.

    As maybe I mentioned (I write this shite and then forget it immediately), it’s a “personal” thing that I therefore didn’t promote on Twitter or Facebook. I’m glad it’s been shared and appreciated, since when I wrote it I had no idea if it was any good or what people would think. So it means so much to me that you liked it. And back where I come from, you are famous!

  • February 3, 2021 at 7:34 pm
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    Oy! Whew! Oy! Jesus! Oh my! and Oy!

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