NEW YORK — First, it was just a headache. A migraine burrowing into his forehead, one that heated and cooled his body, made the room spin a little. But he didn’t usually have migraines. The dizziness and the onset of nausea felt wrong. Like they could be something more. On the outer edges of New York City, as the sound of sirens had started to become more frequent, a troubling thought came to his mind.
And he couldn’t risk it. He didn’t live alone. He didn’t even have a room of his own.
He lives in a Sheltering Arms crisis center in Harlem, where there are usually about five to six boys, aged anywhere from 16 to 20, in a bedroom. It was early March and so far no one had gotten sick with COVID-19. Despite losing his job at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square, life had largely been business as usual. He and his friends played basketball outside and took walks. The urgency of a global pandemic hadn’t sunk in.
He (he asked to remain anonymous because of safety concerns) moved to New York just three months ago, leaving his family behind in California. The twinkling lights of Time Square called to him on television as he watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. He wanted to see it for himself. New York looked like a place of endless opportunity. He could make some money and bring it back to his family, who immigrated from Mexico 12 years ago.
That plan seemed a little silly in the middle of March, as the bustling Time Square that drew him into the city emptied like a nightclub in the early dawn.
It was in the late evening of March 21 when he knew something wasn’t right. He told shelter staff he wasn’t feeling good, about the dizziness and nausea. Perhaps if there weren’t a global pandemic going on, they’d have given him Tylenol and instructed him to lie down.
They called an ambulance for him to Harlem Hospital, where he asked to be tested for the coronavirus. But he didn’t have a fever when he got there, so doctors told him to take some Tylenol and go home. He was discharged at 1:31 a.m.
The next day, his headache and chills continued. And his fever spiked. Staff at the shelter called emergency medical services to pick him up again, but Harlem Hospital had since filled up with cases, so they headed south to Mount Sinai. Sheltering Arms staff called the hospital this time and explained that he lived in a congregate setting, and it was important for them to confirm he had the virus so they could isolate him.
So doctors stuck a long cotton swab up his nose — it felt like they’d stuck a finger up into his brain — and he waited in the emergency room for his results to come back. In less than five hours he had tested positive.
“I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have the virus.’ I was so mad at myself,” he said. “That’s what I get for going outside. That’s what I get for not listening. God said, ‘I’m going to give you a taste of it and see how you like it.’”
Alone and lonely and scared
By the time he made it back to the shelter, staff had secured him his own room and his own bathroom, a luxury he hadn’t known for quite some time. But the blessing of solitude soon felt more like loneliness. When three or four days had passed and his medicine wasn’t working and his fever kept spiking to 103 or 104, he welcomed another trip to the hospital.
“I got in the shower and was just so excited to be outside for a second,” he said.
But soon fear crept in. There wasn’t much to fill his days with except the news. He knew the virus could take a turn for the worse.
“What happens if I can’t breathe? What if my heart starts hurting?” he remembers thinking. “I was scared to be intubated. I was scared to die.”
At the hospital, they wheeled him through an X-ray machine. They found that he had developed secondary pneumonia. His symptoms weren’t severe enough to keep him there or give him oxygen. Instead, doctors prescribed two medications and sent him back to the shelter.
After a day or so, his fever began to drop. And the immediate fear went away. But as the fear left, an incapacitating headache swept in to take its place.
Staff came in the room three times a day to bring him meals. But they were geared in personal protective equipment, masks hiding their smiles and muffling their voices. Although in reality they were only a few yards apart, his friends and roommates could have been on a different continent. It was through apps like Whatsapp that he was able to get real human interaction, and he was grateful they could talk through tech.
He couldn’t chat for very long though. He couldn’t do much of anything for long. Staff had brought in a TV and console for him to play video games, but they ended up taking it out because the monitor made him dizzy.
When he felt sad or scared or lonely, he had nowhere to look but outside — which he did often. His window overlooked the basketball court on the backside of the shelter where, before he became ill, he would play ball with his friends. He watched from afar now.
It became his favorite pastime, watching that orange ball bounce against the pavement and sneakers push off into the air to intercept a pass or a shot. Sometimes he’d imagine he was playing. Sometimes he’d imagine lecturing the boys for touching each other and breathing in the open air.
A return to religion
He imagined a TV reporter knocking on his door, interviewing him about his experience. He relished the idea of sharing a cautionary tale, encouraging everyone to stay inside. The videos he’d watched of those who had recovered from the virus calmed him down and gave him hope. He imagined all this being over. With his healthy and recovered body, he could step outside and tell the reporter what to do if you have the virus. Maybe he could make someone else feel hopeful.
He felt foolish for getting the virus, but was also in awe of his own body. For fighting it off. For surviving. The whole thing felt surreal. It was mostly luck; bad luck that he contracted the virus, good luck that he staved it off. But it felt meaningful. He took his time in solitude to reconnect with God — he was raised Catholic.
“God knows why he did this to me,” he thought. “God knows why he gave me the virus.”
Fifteen days in quarantine had passed. He had gone five days without a fever.
“When I got out, the first thing I did was say hi to the staff,” he said. “I owe them everything for taking care of me, and I see them as my brothers.”
The worst had passed. He decided his misfortune was ultimately a blessing. He had the antibodies. He could fly back to California without the fear of contracting or giving someone else the virus. It was a feeling of remarkable freedom and privilege. His time in New York wasn’t what he’d thought it would be. But COVID-19 had given him perspective on what to value in life.
“I recovered. But there’s other people who don’t recover,” he said. “Knowing that, somehow, it made me think, ‘I’m going to go back to California and be reunited with my family. I wanna go back.’”