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Excerpted from an August 12, 2020, Asia Society Hong Kong discussion entitled "Resolve, Resilience, and Reflection in the Personal Struggle with COVID-19." Watch the complete conversation here.
World-Renowned Tenor, Hong Kong
I spent eight days in New York on a business trip right before the outbreak. I went everywhere — a show at the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway shows, bars, restaurants. I didn’t wear a mask because no one was wearing a mask.
The nightmare began when I flew to Bangkok for a vacation. At the airport, they took my temperature and found that it was over 100. “You can’t go anywhere until we test you for coronavirus,” they said. I waited 10 hours for results to come back. They confirmed I was positive for COVID, so I was taken directly to the hospital. In the end, I didn’t end up spending any time enjoying my vacation in Bangkok.
For two days, I didn’t have any symptoms, so the doctor didn’t give me any medicine. But on the third day, my temperature surpassed 101, and I had a headache — but no fever, no sore throat, no coughing, nothing like that, thank God. I was put on seven different kinds of medication, including Chinese medicine. It’s interesting: Even in Bangkok, you can find Chinese doctors that prescribe Chinese medicine.
After two weeks, my symptoms were gone and I felt fine. But then another nightmare started. I kept testing positive for coronavirus, which meant that I was stuck at the hospital in Bangkok — I couldn’t fly back to Hong Kong. Finally, I got a negative test and was able to go home. But then, I got yet another positive COVID result, so I was forced to spend 10 days in the hospital in Hong Kong! It was very strange and ironic. I took no medication but just kept taking COVID tests until I was negative. All in all, I think I’ve been tested for COVID-19 more than 20 times.
I was lucky that my case wasn’t more severe, and that COVID never affected my voice. So after I came out of the hospital in Hong Kong, I sang a song for reporters there.
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Director, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London
On the 17th of March, my colleagues and I at the university decided to work remotely because we were aware that the virus was spreading. Two days later, I developed a high fever — 101 — with a splitting headache. I felt very, very exhausted, and my muscles and joints were in a lot of pain. But, at the onset, I experienced no coughing or shortness of breath, so I didn’t really meet the case definition for COVID.
I’ve been very lucky. I’m 71, and have basically never been ill my whole life. But for some reason, I thought, “this is it.” Because of my age, I’m in a high-risk category, which is a strange feeling. I’m kind of a workaholic, so I kept working, moving our classes to online. But I felt worse every day. In London, it was total chaos — just everything was badly organized. I couldn’t get a test through the National Health Service because my symptoms didn’t meet the case definition. So about a week after my symptoms began, I got tested at a private clinic and the results came back positive.
Things kept getting worse. I had a splitting headache, and in the end I could hardly move my head or sleep. I went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. But by then, I was already testing negative for COVID — which is quite common, actually. The doctors told me I didn’t have it! But they checked the oxygen saturation level of my blood, and it was 83%. Normally, most people are at 98 or 99 — certainly over 95%. The doctor looked at me and said, “How can you breathe?” I said I wasn’t short of breath. We live in an old Georgian house with four floors and I go up and down the stairs all the time.
They immediately put me on an oxygen mask and, for seven days, I was isolated in a COVID ward with three other men. My symptoms didn’t get better, but after a week my oxygen levels, fortunately, rose to 90, 93%. I got antibiotics for my pneumonia and anticoagulants and a high-flow of oxygen. I was happy that I wasn’t put on a ventilator, because that was my biggest fear. We know today that even if you’re totally healthy, there’s a mortality risk to being put on a ventilator. But the oxygen and anticoagulants saved my life.
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Former Asia Society President and CEO, New York
Very early on, my family and I left New York for a small town out west in the mountains that we love. By the middle of May, I’d take a hike every day, in a place where we’d have no exposure to anyone. One day, I felt like I had a flu; an annoying little cough. I developed a terrible headache and my muscles felt very weak. I joked, “Oh, I have COVID,” because it didn’t seem like a possibility — we really had been quite careful. But I felt really exhausted. I couldn’t do my usual hike.
A couple of days later, I went out for a walk — just to get a little fresh air. About a half-block in, I knew I was going to collapse. I felt that I was going to crack my head open on some rocks. Every inch of my body was shaking like a leaf, and I couldn’t get oxygen. I went back to the house and told my son, “I don’t know what’s happening. I think I’m having a heart attack.” I had no underlying conditions. But my body was trembling, from head to toe, from just the slightest exertion.
People talk about a COVID cliff of 13 days. When I hit that mark, I told my family that I wanted to have a cup of coffee — that I felt like I was coming back. A half-hour later, I was doubled up in pain. I felt like someone had stabbed me with a 10-inch knife in the chest. My son said, “Get in the car. We’re going to the emergency room.” And lo and behold, I had a pulmonary embolism. The doctors put me on blood thinners — which, again, wasn’t standard protocol, as they were flying blind at this point — and within two days I felt like I was coming around. I’ve been steadily improving since then.