“Do you have pets?” she asked.
The Occupational Therapist at the University of Virginia Hospital sounded badly spooked. After a car crash, I had a sternal fracture, spinal breaks, neck tears, traumatic brain injury, and extensive and deep bruising on my legs and stomach. But on that day in early March of 2021, my body’s ravages mattered less than the results of the Covid test I took three days before when I entered the Emergency Department.
“Yes, I have two cats,” I said.
“You know you are going to have to quarantine them in the house when you go home,” she said. She asked me about my cats because I had tested positive for Covid with a PCR test. EMTs took me to the emergency room, and a couple of hours later, employees inserted a swab deep into my nostril.
I looked into her masked face behind a plastic shield, strapped to her forehead. We were in a time of widespread panic and paranoia after the country, and the world, shut down in March 2020. TV people, politicians, and bureaucrats forbid singing, church-going, and gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. We were told to be wary of anyone near us.
When the Occupational Therapist said my cats would have to be in a separate room when I went home, I knew at that moment that I had to get out of there as soon as possible. This was frightening and beyond me. It had become so bizarre that I even feared that they may not let me leave.
“Do you live alone?” she asked. Because I “had” Covid, I was going to have to isolate from people for several days after I left the hospital, she said. According to this specialist, I wasn’t supposed to be near people; I wasn’t supposed to be near pets. In what appeared to be full Hazmat gear, she had come to my large hospital room on the Covid Unit to prepare me for discharge and show me how I was supposed to take off and put on the full body brace I had to wear for the sternal fracture and spinal breaks and the neck brace for the neck tears, and I was supposed to do this by myself. There was no way I could do this by myself. It was absurd. Was this the protocol for a car accident victim who also had Covid?
Pain shot through my spine and gripped my neck. In the big room by myself, I worried about my so-called Covid. I watched the Hallmark Channel all day, managing pain with Oxycodone, Tylenol, muscle relaxers, and help from the nurses getting in and out of the bed with great difficulty to go to the bathroom. Though I had tested positive for Covid, I did not have so much as a sniffle and hadn’t for over a year. I had been teaching on Zoom and hardly going anywhere.
I knew I didn’t have Covid. I probably had Covid in January and February of 2020 before tests and lockdowns. Sickness ran through the public school where I taught then — with staff and students hacking and coughing for weeks. I made a couple of trips to the urgent care center to receive antibiotics that didn’t work and then drove myself to the ER where I got an inhaler that helped me breathe better.
I missed four days of work. Finally, my health improved, and I hadn’t been sick since with any respiratory illness. I did, however, come down with a horribly painful outbreak of shingles on my face and mouth, probably from stress of having to wear the mask, teach on Zoom from an empty classroom, and take the mask off and on at arbitrary times.
The night of my accident, I was driving on a weeknight to have dinner with my then boyfriend, now husband, and a friend at a Mexican restaurant in rural Virginia, a restaurant that had remained delightfully opened and welcoming in the middle of the shutdowns. At an intersection, another driver struck my car on the driver’s side and sent my car spinning and careening and then landing in a ditch. I wasn’t speeding. I was wearing a seatbelt. The other driver had run a light at an intersection. She may have been stressed and distracted from lockdowns and fear we had all been enduring for a year since March 2020.