We all know we should be afraid of it, but relatively few Canadians have experienced COVID-19 themselves.
The effort to contain the pandemic has wrought seismic disruptions to daily life on an individual and global scale. But even as the number of cases in Canada climbs, it’s hard to comprehend the contagion based on a list of symptoms and warnings that it’s fatal.
The Canadian Press asked COVID-19 survivors around the country to share their experiences of the volatile disease that can manifest as a mild bug or life-altering illness. There have been 34,806 confirmed cases and 1,583 deaths due to COVID-19 in Canada as of Sunday (April 19) afternoon.
All in the family
On Tuesday, March 3, Abe Glowinsky was making his way back to Toronto from Washington, D.C., when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent an email informing him that someone at the conference he’d attended may have come in contact with a person who had COVID-19.
He said the organizers’ tone seemed to suggest the risk was low — after all, there were 18,000 people there.
Like many of the world leaders who were at the gathering, the 57-year-old retiree went about his business as usual.
For him, that meant volunteering as president of the synagogue and going to community events.
Two days after he returned, Glowinsky woke up with a headache, but other than that, felt fine.
By Friday, his voice was hoarse and he felt congested. When he sat down for a traditional Sabbath dinner, Glowinsky told his family he was coming down with a bug.
His children joked that maybe it was COVID-19.
On Saturday, Glowinsky said he had a fever and body aches, but his symptoms felt 10 times milder than a previous flu.
Then AIPAC sent an update saying two people at that week’s conference had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Glowinsky was planning to fly with his wife to New York in a few days to celebrate her birthday, so as a precaution, he decided to go to the hospital and get tested.
When Glowinsky found out he was part of the first cluster of cases in Ontario, he said the ripple effects were “devastating.”
The synagogue shut down. Around 75 households were forced into two weeks of self-isolation.
Glowinsky believes he directly infected eight people, including a dear friend who was hospitalized for several days.
Closest to home, his son Jesse Glowinsky, daughter-in-law Heather Glowinsky and then-three-month-old grandson Xander fell ill.
At the peak of his symptoms, Jesse Glowinsky said he strained to look after his young son while curled up in a fetal position beneath a mountain of blankets with the chills.
His wife, however, powered through with the force of a mother “lifting a minivan with child caught underneath.”
The baby had a low-grade fever, but it was hard to tell if he was crying and spitting up because he was sick, or if he was just being difficult.
The parents decided that if the baby’s temperature reached 104 F, they would call 911 to have him taken to the hospital. And because they were symptomatic, there was a chance they couldn’t go with him.
Thankfully, it never came to that. Across generations, the Glowinsky clan came out the other side healthy.
“Having (Xander) here alive and smiling is the best gift we could ever have,” Jesse Glowinsky said.
He said his father still carries a sense of guilt for all the people he unwittingly may have put at risk, but he tries to remind him how many others could have been sickened had he not gotten tested when he did.
“No one intentionally gives the virus to someone else,” he said. “We just didn’t know enough about it then and we still don’t know enough about it now.”
An athlete down for the count
Emily Dwyer would seem to be a poster child for good health: She’s 26 years old, an athlete and says she hasn’t been sick since her youth.
That was until she found herself languishing on a couch in her Halifax apartment, fighting a novel virus no one seemed to fully understand.
A few days after returning from a work trip to Switzerland in mid-March, Dwyer said she felt she was getting a runny nose and her eyes were straining in the light
By her second full day of non-stop sneezing, Dwyer knew something was amiss.
At that point, there were only a handful of COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia. Less than a day after getting tested, Dwyer learned she was member of that unfortunate club.
“I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it,” she said. “I basically just had to really listen to my body and ride it out, and that was really scary and really isolating.”
Dwyer said it felt like the disease was playing “mind games” with her. Every day seemed to bring a new symptom.
She felt like her throat was clogged with sawdust, giving her a dry cough and unquenchable thirst. She couldn’t make it through a two-minute conversation without feeling short of breath.
She had terrible chills, and her body ached as if she had tumbled down a hill, leaving her skin sore to the touch.
Five days in, Dwyer thought she may be on the mend. But soon she felt stabbing pains in her chest.
One night, she noticed that her lips looked blue. The next night, she saw her skin was sapped of colour, and her veins stuck out like “spider webs” on her ashen arms.
When she mentioned the discolouration during her daily phone check-in with a public health worker, Dwyer was instructed to head to the hospital, because it could be a sign she wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
A nurse escorted her from the parking lot to an isolation room. Dwyer said doctors ordered a chest X-ray to see if she had pneumonia, and the results came back negative.
Even after the worst had passed, Dwyer said her ability to taste and smell was touch-and-go.
She slathered her hands in lavender oil and inhaled as deeply as she could — nothing.
After the nausea set in, she had no appetite. But when she forced herself to eat, she found food was devoid of flavour.
Dwyer grew to appreciate the texture of raisin bran, and made her way through some of the untouched groceries cluttering her shelves.
Eventually, Dwyer’s symptoms waned into a sinus infection.
Dwyer said she was initially told she would need two negative swabs to get the all-clear. But she said that requirement was later dropped, and she’d be free to go after 10 days without new or worse symptoms.
It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since Dwyer ”recovered,” but she doesn’t feel like her normal self.
Rather than her regular runs, a flight of stairs can leave her feeling winded.
She said the swirling uncertainty about the lasting physiological impacts of the virus, and whether she’s now immune to it, has also taken a psychological toll.
“I still feel alone. Because when I go out in public, other people are having a different experience than me,” she said. “They’re all scared of catching it, whereas I don’t even know really where I stand.”
The “pioneers” of pandemic
There’s no “manual” to getting COVID-19, Libby Kennedy says.
Holed up in her bedroom on Vancouver Island, the 59-year-old writer decided to document her weekslong ordeal in delerious detail online.
“There is some microscopic battle going on,” Kennedy wrote in one entry of her roughly 7,300-word Reddit post.
“Like a mini epic ‘Star Wars’ full-out light sabre thing. Good versus evil.”
In a more lucid state, Kennedy explained that by posting her experiences on Reddit, she was hoping to demystify the disease that has upended everyone’s lives.
“We’re the pioneers for our own communities,” said Kennedy by phone from Yellow Point, a coastal hamlet near Nanaimo, B.C.
Kennedy, who has autoimmune issues and asthma, said she went shopping to stock up on pandemic supplies on March 11. While she couldn’t find toilet paper, Kennedy believes she came home with the novel coronavirus.
Five days later, Kennedy said she was overcome by exhaustion. At first, she thought her allergies were acting up.
But it wasn’t long before illness invaded every part of her body, with new symptoms hitting her in “waves.”
Her temperature spiked. Her head throbbed. Her muscles ached. She lost 10 pounds from vomiting and diahrrea. No amount of coughing could clear the lump lodged in her throat.
But worst of all was the shortness of breath, Kennedy recalled. Gasping for air, Kennedy said she felt the terror of losing oxygen on a chemical level.
March 28 was Kennedy’s “hell day.” She called up 811, and in one-word sentences, told a nurse she couldn’t breathe.
Before she left for the emergency room, Kennedy wrote letters to her 19-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter. She told them to worship their bodies and look out for their friends and each other.
By the time she reached the hospital, her condition had improved. She said doctors examined her and diagnosed her with COVID-19, and told her to get tested for confirmation.
Given the limited supply of testing kits, Kennedy said she didn’t need a swab to tell her what she already knew.
About a month since this all started, she said she still feels the sickness rippling through her body.
She mused that maybe the virus has changed her ”biologically.” Perhaps it increased her IQ, or retuned her singing voice, she joked.
“You pay that much, you’d think you get a gift back.”
But there was one reward.
Venturing outside for the first time in weeks, Kennedy felt a new appreciation for the simple serenity of a creek running through the forest underneath a clear blue sky.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press