Radha Ruparell: What No One Tells You About Having COVID

I am a 39 year old woman living in New York and I have been battling COVID-19. Today is Day 16. This disease is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. What no one tells you about having the Coronavirus is that it is a rollercoaster ride, not just physically but also emotionally.

having covid
Radha Ruparell discussed the difficulties of having COVID and strategies for self-care. (Image credit: Radha Ruparell)

Over the past few days, I have felt haunted, scared for my life, in pain, confused, anxious, angry, alone, worried that I am losing my mind, and terrified of others getting this. I have also had: the most profoundly moving experiences of connection with loved ones and strangers; gratitude for the life I have lived; presence in moments I had once taken for granted; awe for those on the front lines; and an experience of slowing down and letting go.

Physically, I have experienced things that seem unimaginable. In my first week, I felt like I was losing control of my body. I had deep bouts of fatigue where it felt like someone had drugged me with a bottle of sleeping pills. Headaches were so bad that I thought the pressure might cause an explosion, and night fevers brought the most haunting hallucinations. I struggled to breathe often, once collapsing to my knees gasping for air.

By the second week, the symptoms had progressed to a point where I was truly scared for my life. On Day 8, I felt like I was having a heart attack. The doctors said that under any normal situation, I should be hospitalized but since New York is the epicenter, hospitals are over-capacity and coming in would put hospital workers at risk given the dearth of protective equipment. So I, along with thousands of others, were asked to manage symptoms from home, have telehealth consultations, and take on heavy drug regimens that would normally be monitored under supervision at a hospital. By the end of this week, I had also lost my will to eat and had shed seven pounds.

As I enter this third week, the battle has become more mental. Unlike a typical illness where you have a steady progression, this thing seems to have a mind of its own and is constantly morphing. Just when you think you have it beat, it comes back in another form. It also comes in waves throughout the day. For fleeting moments, like right now, I feel lucid, can form words, and feel some semblance of normal. And then in a matter of minutes, I will find myself bed-ridden, completely unable to move, and in a brain fog where I can’t even focus my attention for a few seconds. I consider myself mentally tough, but as I’ve been battling this, I have many times felt like I am losing my mind.

Here are four lessons I am learning that are helping me through this:

1. Allow yourself to lean and be seen: The single greatest thing that has helped me through this is having a strong support network. In the early days, I barely had strength. My phone felt like it weighed one hundred pounds, and I would get short of breath speaking a few words. So I reached out only to a doctor friend and to my sister for support but no one else. But soon, a work colleague of mine, who I would not have expected to be one of my core pillars of support, started reaching out to me every day. Her encouraging text messages offered me so much comfort and helped me get through the difficult nights. And then, I began reaching out to others and found relief in a friend who brought me humor, another who helped me get groceries, and an online COVID-19 support group that let me see that I am not alone in this. What I have learned is that, especially in this time of collective trauma, having a broad support network matters, and that we should ask for the help we need. Admittedly, I felt quite raw and vulnerable at times, but with nothing left to lose, I shared my deepest fears and thoughts with others in ways that I had never done before. And in that, I discovered the beauty in our interconnectedness.

2. Let go and be with what’s so: On Day 14, I finally broke down and admitted that I had never been more scared in my life. When I was able to just “be with” that fear and say it out loud, suddenly it wasn’t as terrifying anymore. I realized that I didn’t have control over all the ways this illness might progress, but I did still have a choice about how I would show up in this battle. Right then, I made a choice: to be positive, fight with all my energy, and soak in the good moments when I had them. As I lay for hours in bed, I also had space to contemplate my life, and I found myself pondering questions not about what I had accomplished in my life, but about who I had been along the way. Had I been kind to family and friends? Had I taken full responsibility for my mistakes? Had I expressed myself fully and let the world see who I really am? Ultimately through letting go, I found strength and wisdom.

3. Cultivate a strong mind: There are endless ways to keep our bodies fit and strong, but what really helped me through this was focusing on a strong mind. After the first few days started blending into each other, I decided I needed practices to keep my mind lucid. From that point on, I set mini-goals. On most days, the goals were simple and small. One morning, I would commit to eating a few bites of oatmeal so that I could take my medicine. The next day, I might step up to half a bowl. On more ambitious days like today, I have committed to writing a few words so that maybe I can help someone else who is suffering just like me. While these are small steps, they feel like victories and give me something to look forward to. Other times, I find strength in visualizing myself at the top of the Himalaya Mountains breathing in the sunrise; listening to an uplifting song; watching funny video clips of my young nieces and nephews; and dreaming up ways I might be of service to others once I have antibodies.

4. Slow down and soak it in: Like many New Yorkers, I lead a busy life. This experience has gotten me to slow down and take life in. Every night at 7pm, I now pull myself out of bed, open my window, take in a breath of fresh air, and clap for the frontline workers. I have taken thousands of breaths in my life, but until now, I had never really fully soaked them in like this. It is also so beautiful to pause each day and acknowledge those on the front lines, from my doctor who is a true hero, to those stocking grocery shelves so we can all eat, to the woman at the pharmacy who held me with such empathy when I called desperate to get some medicine delivered. It makes me think about teachers, nurses, and so many other leaders who are quietly in service every day, even beyond this pandemic, and yet who rarely get acknowledged. What could our world look like if we ended our obsession with a “me” culture and instead truly valued those who serve?

***

These are the lessons I am learning as I battle COVID-19 now, and I suspect they will continue to be my guiding lights when I recover. I say “when” I recover, not “if”, because I am determined to beat this thing. COVID-19 may be resilient and persistent but so am I. And if you’re also fighting this battle right now, remember that you too are strong. Keep fighting! And know that you are not alone!

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Radha Ruparell

Author: Radha Ruparell

Radha Ruparell is a global cross-sector leader committed to transforming human potential. Radha is the Head of Leadership and Learning at Teach For All - a global network that is working to develop collective leadership in classrooms and communities in more than 50 countries around the world so that all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Radha has also led work across many continents with McKinsey & Company, World Bank, Pratham India Education Initiative, Acumen Fund, and UNDP.

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