When an emergency room suspected I had coronavirus, things got serious fast

After I was whooshed into a private, Manhattan-studio-size room at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, nurses in heavy-duty hazmat-like suits and masks suddenly surrounded me, inserting an intravenous needle, checking my heart and pulse, examining my organs and writing measurements on charts. New masks were changed. One doctor stood at least 10 feet away from me, his back against the wall, as he talked to me.

It suddenly dawned on me, though no one had said it. They thought I had coronavirus.

“Patient Zero,” one emergency room doctor said to a skeptical nurse outside my private ER room, urging her to put on a heavy-duty mask, according to Kate Sullivan, a friend who bravely, or maybe insanely, spent the day with me, wearing a chic, heavy-duty mask of her own.

By that time, I had been sick for five days with flu-like symptoms, and I eventually acquiesced to visit an urgent care center after being urged by essentially . . . well, everyone I knew.

Tests at the center that morning showed I did not have the flu. But I was pouring sweat. My pulse was soaring. Something clearly was wrong. The doctor pressed me to go to the ER immediately. He feared that it could be sepsis or a blood clot. If I went now, he’d call ahead.

The Uber driver who picked me up as I stood on a Washington street corner wearing a large green mask, leaving an urgent care facility en route to a hospital emergency room, was undoubtedly thrilled. We did not speak about it. He did open his window.

Once in the ER, I was given a liter of saline. All sorts of beeps and bonks and buzzes went off from the machine to which I was tethered. My fever hovered around 100 degrees.

At one point, nurses asked me to leave one sealed, private room and go to another. “We have to make sure no air can get out from your room,” one said, helpfully explaining the rationale. “Can you walk? Please keep your mask on all times,” a nurse said, as fellow patients eyed me.

They also taped a sign to my door to warn people not to approach me, my friend Kate said. It would take each nurse or doctor sometimes 45 to 60 seconds to enter the room because they needed to get adequately dressed. When they would leave, they would throw all of their protective gear into a special can, where a cleaner — also in a heavy-duty suit — would come pick it up.

An infectious disease specialist had come the night before and given new protocols, one nurse said.

After a few hours, my pulse went down. I stopped sweating. I even felt well enough to email with a few colleagues about coronavirus spreading in the United States and how we were covering the administration’s response.

In the second room, a doctor came in and read off a list of countries where cases had been prevalent. I had not traveled to any of those places. He asked me 20 to 30 more questions. He was focused on the virus.

The doctors then gave me a full-body CT scan.

After all the hullabaloo, the CT scan and dozens of tests, the doctors said they did not believe I had coronavirus. But confirming that with actual test results would require consulting the local health department, which would require approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would take time and might or might not happen after all that. There was no way to know. I was not under a mandatory quarantine order.

Was this normal, I asked? Yes, the doctors said. As of last Friday, the criteria for testing had not expanded beyond travel to Asia or contact with someone with a confirmed diagnosis. (The decision to make the test more broadly available based on a doctor’s orders would be announced five days later.)

The diagnosis — after five hours — was a “respiratory viral infection.” I could go home, the doctors said. I was not required to quarantine myself. I should take aspirin. I would be better soon.

The doctors and the nurses had all been attentive, kind and erudite, parrying my uninformed questions and circling me for non-stop care.

The problem was I continued to feel horrible. I laughed nervously when friends joked that I had coronavirus, but now I was really worried. I sat up all Friday night reading medical articles on the Internet — not something I’d recommend for anyone’s mental health.

Saturday afternoon, one of the ER doctors, who asked not to be named in this piece but was fastidious and deeply empathetic, reached out to me. He’d read my blood charts and found something. I had a large number of “abnormal lymphocytes” — or dysfunctional white blood cells. He said he never believed I’d had coronavirus but that others wanted an abundance of caution.

The lymphocytes could be a sign of mononucleosis, he said, or of leukemia, a far more problematic diagnosis. He wanted me to get checked for mono. If I didn’t have it, I needed to see an oncologist, he said.

Now, feeling horrible and fearful I was even sicker than I thought, I returned to the urgent care facility the next morning. My visit on Friday had apparently left something of an impact. The physician assistant who treated me said: “Are you okay? We were really worried about you on Friday.”

I told him I thought I had mono, explained what the doctor said and asked for a test. That actually made sense, the physician assistant said.

Ten minutes later, my blood was drawn, and I was positive for mononucleosis.

I called the emergency room doctor later that day. “That’s great news!” he said.

I agreed. Mono never seemed so good.

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