What having COVID-19 is like: Two Canadians talk diagnosis and recovery

Two people explain how they caught COVID-19, and how they handled symptoms and the lingering effects—physical and mental

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      Even if you haven’t had COVID-19, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say you don’t know someone in your extended network who has received a diagnosis.

      “You may get COVID-19 and survive. Most people do," Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa stated at a COVID-19 briefing. "But you may spread to someone who can’t. And it’s not fair that someone should die from COVID-19 because the rest of us didn’t try hard enough to avoid it.”

      Since cases vary from exposure and symptoms, to recovery and long-term effects, we asked two Canadians to tell us their stories, from the moment of exposure to the sometimes long-lasting recovery efforts.

      Located in different regions of the Greater Toronto Area and exposed in different ways at different points during the pandemic, each story tells us more about how the virus continues to spread.

      Early COVID-19 diagnosis, long-term recovery

      Ryan Siu, 30, tested positive for COVID-19 in April along with his brother, his father, and his mother.

      The recent York University graduate and scientific journal editor says his family couldn’t be sure at the time, but believe they all caught the virus from his father, who possibly got it during his job in electronic manufacturing.

      First, his dad started exhibiting serious symptoms after almost two weeks, so Siu and his family took him to Markham Stouffville Hospital, where he was admitted to intensive care. Then, the next day, Siu and the rest of his family started showing symptoms as well. They all tested positive.

      What was the virus like? Siu says his symptoms started as mainly lethargy and shortness of breath.

      “Once we reached the one-week mark, we actually thought the symptoms were better, but then they became probably even worse than before,” he says.

      His grandmother lives with the family, so throughout those two weeks, he and his mother and brother wore gloves and masks. The family also used a different bathroom to ensure their paths never crossed with their grandmother.

      The challenging part, Siu says, was that they were going through the worst of their symptoms while their father was going through his worst time at the hospital.

      “The doctors and nurses told him he would need to be intubated that evening,” Siu says of his dad. “He realized that it was pretty serious and he might not make it, and he was scared, not necessarily because of the sickness, but the fact that he might not be able to see his family again.”

      Siu’s dad was in a coma for six weeks after being intubated and ended up hospitalized for 114 days. Once the tubing and ventilator was removed, he had to recover from two different infections in the heart and spine.

      “At the time he was discharged, he was still wheelchair-bound. He still needed physiotherapy and everything to train his legs back because of the immobility for over three, four months,” he says.

      His dad has now reached around 80 percent capacity. Siu doesn’t feel completely back to normal yet either.

      “I still exhibit some shortness of breath, especially when I start talking for a longer duration of time, or going up or down flights of stairs. It still affects me,” he says.

      Looking now at the growing cases and the lax attitudes around the virus, Siu says his family sees the situation differently.

      “We always say that these people who don’t follow the rules and regulations, or even people who think that it’s not even real, they won’t know until someone close to them actually gets COVID,” he says. “And then that will be their wake-up call.”

      A COVID-19 diagnosis over the holidays

      Sebastian Azar received a COVID-19 diagnosis just a few days before the holidays.

      A 19-year-old student at Laurier University, he and his roommates made an agreement at the beginning of December: they would quarantine and only be in close contact with each other. That way, they could all safely go home for the winter break without worrying about exposing their families to the virus.

      But two of his roommates met up with two of their friends to hand off cookies outside, where they interacted for five minutes and then decided to hug. The two roommates received the call from their friends a few days later: their roommate had tested positive for COVID-19.

      Azar and each of his roommates got tested, and each test came back positive save for one of his roommates.

      “It was really upsetting because my roommates and I were really big on the month of December. We saw cases rising and we didn’t want to see anyone,” he says. “We hadn’t seen anyone in the month of December. But they had gone out to meet up with the two friends outside just to do a handoff, and they ended up hugging.”

      Azar developed symptoms soon after the positive test, and they lasted for around 10 days.

      “Through that whole period, I was always exhausted. I had a loss of appetite and slight confusion, and shortness of breath,” he says.

      He was forced to stay in Waterloo, Ontario, for the entirety of the holidays, including New Year’s. The conversation with his roommates who exposed him to the virus was especially tough.

      “One of my roommates expressed remorse. She felt really bad, especially because she got it the easiest in terms of symptoms,” he explains.

      Azar says the one roommate who tested negative stayed negative throughout the entire quarantine period.

      “He didn’t share things with us that would touch our mouths, like a fork or drinks, even though we still all had physical contact,” he says.

      He was cleared by public health around New Year’s, but some symptoms still remain.

      “There’s still the lingering shortness of breath and loss of appetite,” Azar says. “I understand my body very well and I know that I don’t get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs, that wasn’t the case before.”

      More than that, he feels the long-lasting emotional effects of the virus.

      “In my experience, when I think back to the time I spent having COVID and being in isolation, the feeling I remember is more a feeling in my mind than the feeling in my body,” he says. “The mental toll was more than the physical toll, and it’s not talked about.”