A Writer Writes: Josh Swiller (Zambia) on having the coronavirus


On March 29th, RPCV writer Josh Swiller (Zambia 1994–96) posted the following on his FaceBook page:


Hi Everyone. Following up on the last post, I’m really seeing how important and supportive it is to share our stories and experiences. On that note, and in answer to the many questions I’ve received, what follows is a more in-depth account of what we went through.

The first week of March, Leah attended a group therapy conference in New York City. It has now come to light that dozens of attendees at that conference tested positive or have shown symptoms but couldn’t get tested. In fact, the first person we learned was a confirmed positive was an attendee from Singapore. They tested him as soon as he got off the plane back home as a matter of policy. Leah had sat next to him for two days. Another person who has since tested positive is a good friend of Leah’s from Virginia.

The evening four days after returning, nine days after the conference began, Leah felt an intense wave of tiredness that she chalked up to her morning workout. It passed and she went to work the next day. The following evening, I began feeling exhausted and had a minor cough. The next morning, I was rapidly feeling worse. Shortly after we left the house, Leah got an email from the conference organizers saying there had been exposure at the conference and she should immediately quarantine.
We picked up the boys and went home. We were both feeling fatigued and ill. And also feeling something neither of us had ever felt before — brutally tight pain in the chest and shortness of breath.

On Friday, we got tested. The test was negative for strep and all flus. Two days later it came back negative for coronavirus. This was confusing as we were still sick. (It’s now come to light that the tests have a lot of false negatives. I was also in constant contact with my GP who had no doubt it was coronavirus and kept us in quarantine.) We were prescribed inhalers which helped when the chest pain was at its worst.

Leah began to improve. She recovered in less than half the time I did. (Yes, women are stronger than men.) I was beginning to improve too but then, seven days in, I relapsed hard, and my shortness of breath got so disturbing and unlike anything I’d ever experienced that I went to the emergency room. My O2 level was normal though so after a few hours they sent me home.

Eight days after first coming down with symptoms, was the worst day yet. I barely moved the entire day. The next day was no better. On the 10th, I started to see a little improvement, and on the 11th, I was able to sit up and do a few things though the chest pressure and shortness of breath continued.
My seven year-old complained of a sore chest one day and of a headache another, neither which he has had before. But that seems to be the extent of it for him. My four year-old complained of a headache one evening.

It’s now been 17 days since my first symptoms. I’m still taking it easy and will take at least a week before any serious exercise but I’m feeling light years better every day. And I’m looking forward to sharing antibodies once I’m stronger.

A couple further thoughts:
It doesn’t quite feel like a flu. One thing that felt very different was how often the symptoms cycle through – that you don’t feel them all at once, but one at a time. And sometimes you can feel like you’re improving and then a few hours later feel the opposite.

Fluids! I couldn’t get enough of water, broth, tea, and especially Gatorade or something similar, to replace electrolytes.

Chest tightness: this was the main symptom for both of us. It was painful, like an invisible hand is grabbing the sternum and squeezing.

Low fever: For me, it never got over 100 and no fever for Leah.

Chills: In contrast, I had a lot of these and still have some. I found it very helpful to be in a very warm room. I spent a lot of time in a bedroom with a space heater cranked to over 80 degrees.

Shortness of breath: this is the scariest one because you can’t help wondering where it could go. Keep in touch with your GP, if you can. After my first experience of it, when I went to the ER, I worked to slow everything down and try to breathe through it, until the anxiety passed, if only to not overwhelm our medical providers. Of course, immediately seek care if it doesn’t.

Body aches: Like flu, but comes and goes.

Relapse: Reading reports in the news and especially from reading emails in the conference listserv, I’m seeing that a strong relapse right around a week in is very common. The relapse is scary and frustrating but for me, knowing it’s a common part of the progression was helpful. I’ve also read that from onset of symptoms to hospitalization, the average time is 8.3 days, which makes sense. It’s a slow moving beast and eight days is around when the relapse hit me.

Dry cough: We both experienced this (Leah actually more often experienced a wet cough) but this wasn’t a severe symptom for either of us. My impression of a dry cough is one that is unproductive – it doesn’t bring up anything.

Fatigue: Sometimes it’s like being hit by a train. Don’t push through this! That’s been one of the key lessons here – flu you can sometimes push through. Not this. Rest.

Mental clarity: This was another unique one. The disease is so lung-focused that my thoughts, except for the worst days, were quite clear. When experiencing flu and high fever, my brain checks out. It could be confusing and hard to tell how sick I was when my mind felt fine and the body didn’t.

Time: It’s a slow one. Leah sometimes feels a ghost pain in her chest still now, but it’s faint enough that it’s not entirely worrisome but something to treat with caution. I can feel it will be a while before full recovery. I can understand why in the charts tabulating worldwide cases, the list of active cases is quite long. It takes a while.

Gastrointestinal distress: I had some of this but nothing extraordinary. Leah recalls that a few days before she had fatigue, both her and our four year-old had some stomach upset. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was their systems fighting it off at the onset.

Final thoughts:Many of us will get this. Please do not take any unnecessary risks. Avoid it as long as possible — I’m quite hopeful they’ll soon figure out some treatments to mitigate the worst of the symptoms. I’ve been more intensely sick (I had malaria in the Peace Corps) but have never been sick for so long at such a level.

And also have faith in yourself. You are strong and healthy. It can be addicting, reading of the worst case scenarios, the sudden unexpected downturns, of wondering if your asthma is a death sentence – most likely, it will not be. Really. If you get it, with care and love and time, you will beat it. I know I say that with no pre-existing health issues, but I know people with such issues who have kicked the Rona’s ass.

And you’re not alone. Hit me up, reach out. Let’s be there for each other.

Josh Swiller’s Peace Corps memoir The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa won the 2008 Peace Corps Writers Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award.

One Comment

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  • Josh – that was a wonderful description you gave about your and your family’s symptoms all along.

    I am both sympathetic and empathetic about all PCVs being brought home suddenly. Fortunately, nothing like COVID-19 hit us when I was in the Peace Corps (Panamá 1964-1966). I am amazed that I’ve never come down with malaria or other, after my kind of work in 42 countries with USAID. I must just be lucky!

    I’d like to read your book. I’m busy reading What You’ve Heard is True, about a young woman’s eye-opening experience in El Salvador (I worked there for three years), another one about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (another year there) and two more books about Iraq and Afghanistan (two years there). Interesting books, all available at Amazon.com.

    You may be interested in reading the first chapter of my non-fiction flagship book, An American in the World: The Perennial Wanderer, which covers my unusual Peace Corps experiences. Another non-fiction book of mine, about El Salvador, is The End of the Civil War in El Salvador: 1992, and my third non-fiction book is about my two Scottish families – Clan MacKinnon and Clan Orr. All three are at Amazon.com as eBooks and are at the Apple Book Store as iBooks.

    I hope you and Leah and your children are feeling much better now. If you want to trade messages I’m on Facebook and my e-mail address is exmultifacted@msn.com. I’d enjoy communicating with you and Leah.

    Warm regards . . . Steve

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