Cheryl Sadowski is a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta. She is a licensed pharmacist who specializes in geriatrics.
Soon after returning from an international cruise the final weekend of February 2020, my husband became ill, and I followed 2 days later. I called in sick to work, leaving my team without a pharmacist. While trying to manage an unbearable spiking fever, muscle aches, and dizziness, I opened my front door at -15 degrees Celsius. After waking up on the floor, door ajar, I could hear a strange sound. Was it a breeze? Was something wrong with the furnace? I oriented to the fact that the new sound was wheezing, coming from my chest with each breath, and I was facing the ceiling.
The health call centre nurse noted my symptoms and after asking if I had visited China or Iran, had handled COVID-19 lab samples, or had a confirmed interaction with someone who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, she concluded that I failed to meet the testing criteria. I requested further consideration for a swab, given my recent international travel on a cruise ship, with interactions at destinations with people from all over the world, with a high fever, loss of consciousness, dizziness, new generalized muscle aches, wheezing, with recent interaction with vulnerable seniors. The call centre person had to speak with her supervisor. She returned to tell me that they were only doing swabs for those at risk. I reiterated my red flag words. She suggested that she could recommend that I have a swab for strep throat. And she suggested that I chew gum, to “help massage the tubes from my ears and remove mucus, which helps after long flights.”
What about the older adults I’d seen after my return, or my colleagues who, after interacting with me, provided care in congregate living settings full of seniors? Feeling distressed about the risk of spread, but more distressed about those at high risk that I had seen in the days before I became ill, I took the call centre nurse up on her offer to obtain a strep throat swab, strategizing how I might obtain a swab for COVID-19. At the walk in clinic, where I sat apart from the other 2 patients in the waiting area, I wrote out my concerns about my potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2. It was the first thing I mentioned when the physician appeared in the examination room. “Don’t worry about that virus; this is probably just a cold,” they said. A swab was taken to test for strep, with the physician inches away from my face, and I left the clinic with visions of cruise ships, intubated seniors in Italy, and the painting The Scream merging in my mind. Didn’t anyone watch the news?!
A few days later, testing policies changed. I called back and was informed that I would have an urgent test at my home, given my symptoms and that I was a healthcare professional. They would come tomorrow. I carried my phones with me around the house for the next 2 days. I told my supervisors I would let them know ASAP.
While waiting and working from home I asked my husband if we should throw out our expensive scented candles because they had lost their scent. He, on the other hand, was smelling orchards of fruit in every room. Delicious foods I usually enjoyed tasted sour. Brushing my teeth was 2 minutes of disgusting.
After another 72 hours I called again, and was told that the computers went down – requisitions were lost. Now paper documents were being used and someone would call me once the form had been processed. I still did not get a call. Still isolating at home, I called after yet another 72 hours to hear, “Yes, you’ll be tested, and we’ll call you.”
A week later, and 2 weeks after beginning self-isolation, I ventured out for an errand. Returning home there was a message. I would be required to report to a drive-through COVID-19 testing clinic, with my appointment booked under my name and healthcare number, and it was noted that I was a healthcare professional. It was 24 days since the onset of my symptoms and 23 days since I had been advised to chew gum. Unsure of the ramifications for a healthcare professional who doesn’t show up for this type of test, I went for my swab. One month after onset of symptoms, I received a call, “You’re negative!”
Even now, food is sporadically tasteless. I continue to feel guilt about not having been able to inform vulnerable people. Two and a half months later I still encounter colleagues, some with health conditions that would put them at risk, who ask, “Did you ever get tested? After we had that meeting at the start of March I was really sick…”