‘I had all the symptoms for coronavirus, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t get tested. I’m not the only one’

Nelly Skoufatoglou got three different assesments, on the same night at the same hospital. The seriousness of the situation escalated along with the symptoms.

At almost 38, I can’t recall when the last time I had the flu or what a cold was. Up until three weeks ago I didn’t own a thermometer because it had been decades since I broke into a fever.

I know, because for years, I would brag that nothing could keep me home. I carried the same mentality when the coronavirus saga began unfolding; I was certain that “what you don’t fear can’t get you”.

The only thing tormenting me for a few days every spring since I moved to Australia was hay fever, something I eventually got used to like Vegemite.

This year my allergies were particularly bad, something that the post-bushfire smog made worse but not unbearable.

In January, I worked on a fashion project based in Bali and returned to Australia mid February. People at our hotel stopped going out and many of the tourists were walking around wearing masks. During the last week of our stay we were advised to stay inside as much as possible.

On the airplane I didn’t even remove my mask to eat. Upon returning to Melbourne, there was a temperature detector we had to go through; I was fine- presumably- and caught an Uber home.

Give or take one week later, my hay fever was back, worse than ever. Even though I found solace in other people around me suffering as hard, I decided to go get checked for Covid-19 because my nose had transformed to an endless tap. Other than that, I was feeling the same as ever, just a little crankier.

“It’s not coronavirus. No need to worry. But we will get you checked anyway. This could be a sinus infection due to the excessive use of antihistamines and nasal decongestants… Let’s get you on Amoxicillin. Here’s one cycle. You might need more. Let us know how you go and if it clears out or not.”

Fast forward a week and my tap of a nose not only hasn’t stopped running but the congestion has reached a whole new level not allowing me to breathe. The sprays didn’t work. I kept taking Amoxicillin and antihistamines; the congestion went away after a few days taking with it my sense of smell and taste.

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I attributed it to the antibiotics and antihistamines. I asked around, called a doctor… literally complained to everyone around me about my anosmia for over a week.

In wanting to get an appointment for a repeat prescription, a doctor trying to evaluate whether I should turn up at the clinic or not, told me that they had doubts I needed antibiotics while stressing that if I got the coronavirus my immune system would actually be weaker than usual. I listened and the next day my sense of smell was back just in time for the weekend. “You worry too much and that’s good, because you’re being careful, but loss of smell and a runny nose are not common coronavirus symptoms.”

That weekend was hectic. By Friday afternoon the reality of the coronavirus situation was hitting me hard, through friends and acquaintances losing their jobs or their cool by the hour.

My chest felt heavy. I’d never felt like this before…

I googled everything and tried to block that vague feeling out thinking it was probably anxiety combined with the fact that I’d put myself under more physical strain that weekend.

Going for a short supermarket trip on Smith Street that day (Sunday 15 March) and seeing all the shelves empty gave me an anxiety attack. On top of that, I could not stop thinking of my elderly mum, going through this whilst completely alone in Athens.

That same night I asked my friends to leave my apartment telling them the conversation was making me more anxious than usual. I felt that I couldn’t breathe and had heart palpitations; my thoughts were scattered as well as my motor skills.. My neighbour kept insisting I was anxious and not sick. I believed it and took a quarter of a Xanax thinking it would relax my breathing.

Whilst waiting to be released. Photo: Supplied

On Monday, I could hardly move and my muscles felt extremely tense. My chest was heavy, like it was going to explode. There was no fever, no sore throat. No cough. No runny nose. What was happening to me? I took a sick day and panic googled everything. I saw shortness of breath was one of the main Covid-19 symptoms and it was the thing worrying me the most. No flu or cold when I was younger – no amount of anxiety – had given me shortness of breath before. It didn’t feel as if I had run and was trying to catch my breath; it felt like I was climbing at very high altitude and the pressure was almost crushing my lungs.

I did not sleep that night and for most of the day after, I scaled up and down my apartment shivering. My muscles were aching, my hands were ice cold and my nose was runny again. I had a cough. Dry, almost like an allergic reaction to dust.

I could not find a thermometer or cold and flu medication anywhere near my street. I had Healthdirect on the line and their Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker on my laptop; both in agreement, suggesting I call an ambulance.

My breathing was bad, “but I’m a strong person full of energy. It’s embarrassing to call an ambulance” I thought.

Just before 4pm I was getting quite light-headed. I could not see properly. It was all grey and I felt that I could pass out. I put on a P2 mask and gloves and ubered it to a Covid-19 patient screening clinic. I got a wristband and two nurses took my info and temperature, checked my heart rate and wrote down what I reported as symptoms. I was not doing well and it showed. I could not say more than three words in a row without having to stop and struggle to catch my breath. I was told to sit in a chair “as further down as possible” as the front ones were being disinfected. There were so many people. Every few seconds another one.

The second nurse that had spent the most time with me was concerned. She asked two staff members for an opinion while saying “I know she came back from Bali more than two weeks ago but she can hardly breathe.”

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I was sent through to be tested. There a doctor asked me to fill out an online form, surprised that the nurses had not told me to fill that out on my phone before entering that area. The same conversation was had with another four people that came in after me.

I filled it out. Submitted it online. The doctor then printed out a release form a few pages long that recorded the date and time I came in, and my symptoms as listed by me. It also said that I was evaluated as “low-risk” for Covid-19 solely on I not having been overseas in the past 14 days and ii) not having come in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case.

I was looking at the form and the release saying that I can “return to her normal activities, including work”, and I could not believe it.

Where it says 3. Nelly isadvised to return to daily activities. (Where SOB= shortness of breath). Photo: Supplied

“I need you to explain to me why this says I can go home and to work and be with people when I legit have most of the symptoms? I am afraid that I could stop breathing if this chest pressure continues. What if it is something else? You haven’t properly checked if I’m okay enough to leave.”

“Unfortunately, you do not meet the criteria to be tested. We only test people who have been overseas within the 14 day mark and people who have proof of contact with a confirmed case.”

That was repeated to me more times than I can remember. At the same time I was struggling so much to get enough air through my mask that I had changed colour.

After discussing it with another colleague the doctor gave me a referral to the main emergency area. They told me to walk out to the left and hand it to the reception. A few minutes later a lovely doctor took me in and initiated a different procedure.

Blood tests, more blood tests, X-Rays, and ECG, more blood and “hopefully a bed, at least for as long as the tests will take”. In protective gear head to toe he was urging a nurse to put her mask on.

He checked my throat, and sat with me trying to explain the situation:

“Hi Nelly, unfortunately, our direction is to only test people who have either been overseas or…”

“Yes, I know and I understand but…”

“Don’t worry. We will check every other possibility to make sure there is no underlying health condition causing this.”

“So, what are you telling me? This here says that I can return to my normal activities with these symptoms?,” I asked.

Nelly is given a week of sick leave before she can return to work. Photo: Supplied

After the blood test I was asked to sit in the main waiting lounge at the ER and wait to be called for my X-Ray. In the meantime my phone died. A few hours passed before I was given a bed. I got another ECG, repeated my symptoms to two more people and a couple more hours went by until the X-Ray got done. There was no underlying condition but what we did find out was that “you have pneumonia, Nelly, and that is what’s causing you the chest pressure and dyspnea”.

“You are a young, healthy woman and you seem fit. There are some difficult days ahead. Drink as many fluids as you can and get some rest. Take paracetamol if you are in pain or your fever rises. You will be okay.”

The second document, after the X-Ray gives Nelly two weeks of leave from work. Photo: Supplied

“You need to understand that whatever it is that you have, is viral. And we don’t want anyone else contracting this. You are healthy and you will get better in a couple of weeks but we need you to go home and stay home. Okay?”

“So why can’t I get tested for Covid-19? What do I tell people? Should I tell people I have viral pneumonia just in case? How do I know it’s not coronavirus?”, I asked.

“We cannot confirm or exclude it at this stage so we are treating it like it is. Right now there is fluid in the outer lining of your lungs messing with them, hence the pressure. The best scenario is that you go home and take care of yourself. You don’t have any underlying issues that do not allow you to treat this at home. Just monitor your symptoms, especially the second week and if you get worse come back to us. What you tell people is your business. But stay at home.”

I got dressed and headed home. It felt surreal.

Curdled under the doona I made a conscious effort to not fall asleep, scared that if my breathing slowed, it would stop altogether.

I stayed up the next night, and the night after that. The two times I nearly fell asleep, I got up gasping for air while attempting to scream.

A phone call from the hospital checking up on me calmed me down but finding out that my blood cells were fighting a virus, wasn’t exactly ‘medicine’ for the soul. I was asked if I was staying home “just in case” and if I was feeling better. You see, I still hadn’t gotten a Covid-19 test, but since I was isolating with no outside contact at all I was doing the right thing.

It took nine days for a suspicion of improvement to appear but it would come and go until the 12th day. That is when I realised I had turned the corner. In the meantime the rest of the symptoms, apart from the occasional chills and hypothermia has gone during the first three days; it was the difficulty breathing and the chest pressure I was battling with.

In the meantime I left a message on someone’s instagram that was tested positive and had the same symptoms including ‘anosmia’ (loss of smell), they told me new studies proved it was the most common symptom between fairly asymptomatic cases of people who had tested positive but didn’t feel sick.

There were times I wanted to cry. Not so much for myself. Sure, I was mad I got sick. I felt defeated but I could not stop thinking how lethal my symptoms would have been for an older person, someone with asthma, high blood pressure or another condition.

It was the worst two weeks of my life and I wasn’t even coughing incessantly or hallucinating from fever like my neighbour was. She got sick before I did and she is still sick.

Fun fact? She too tried to get tested. She couldn’t.

She was told the exact same thing at a different clinic.

“You do not meet the criteria to be tested.”

I am back to normal now but I can’t get over how scary it was and how long it lasted without improving. I can’t get over how sick I was and that in the hospitals near me I could not get tested. Not because doctors did not want to test us but because they couldn’t. Whether the reason is shortage of tests, lack of time to process or being flooded with patients non-stop the numbers reported cannot be right as cases in the ICU that tested positive did not come through via a previously confirmed case.

If we are only testing those who have been overseen the past two weeks and those that have reportedly come into contact with positive cases, how are we even dealing with community spread amongst those who have not gotten gravely ill?

Up until three weeks ago people with the full gamut of Covid symptoms at the ER were constantly being turned away, sent home or even worse, back to work.

What we knew about the virus then, is not what we know about the virus now.

Life as we know it keeps mutating along with it.

It seems that staying home and acting like we have it already is the only way to keep it away.