My Immune System's COVIctory
On March 22, nine days after sheltering in place began, I became sick. After far more effort than should have been required, I was able to get tested for COVID-19. That initial throat swab test came back negative but, as I was still sick and on day 11 of my fever, I was given the blood antibody test the clinic had just acquired, and I tested positive. I wrote previously about my early coronavirus symptoms and my efforts to get tested. Here, I am celebrating my recovery.
RA and the immune system
For those of us with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD), our immune systems can feel like our enemy. Designed to keep us well by fighting viruses and bacteria, immune systems can get confused and battle one’s own body.
My immune system: a complicated history
My life was first disrupted by my immune system when I was seven years old. Doctors couldn’t explain why, but my white cell count was so low that I couldn’t fight off illnesses, and I was kept home from school for three months until it returned to normal levels.
Over the next 15 years, I had recurring illnesses and infections, joint pain and inflammation, and profound fatigue that doctors were unable to explain. When I was diagnosed with RA/RD at 22 years old, all the pieces of my medical mystery came together, and they pointed to my immune system as the culprit.
My immune system is not the enemy
In recent years, I’ve worked to stop seeing my immune system as the enemy and, instead, view it as a confused child that needs loving redirection. While this approach fosters greater levels of self-acceptance and compassion for myself, it doesn’t erase the fact that my immune system has significant challenges. Therefore, when coronavirus began appearing in the United States, I was very anxious about how severe a case I might have should I contract the virus.
Recovering from COVID-19 was not easy
My reality with having COVID-19 was better than I’d feared, but it was a significant time in my life. I survived and did not require hospitalization. Yet, I was sick in bed for six weeks, sick on the couch for another week, and was operating at about half-capacity for the eighth week.
Fatigue and weakness
It took a full two months to approach a level of normalcy. For most of that time, I felt a level of fatigue greater than anything I’d ever known. While my decades of living with RA/RD have made me no stranger to fatigue, COVID-fatigue was even more debilitating. I felt as if my body were made of wet paper, and every cell of my body was being pulled toward the earth, crumpling toward the ground.
It was hard for me to lift my feet from the floor, and I often had to shuffle to the bathroom or kitchen. Sometimes the weight of my smartphone was too much for me to support. Even holding my head up against a stack of pillows could be too difficult, and I had to shift to a completely horizontal position to relieve my weary neck muscles.
Grateful for my immune system
However, except on a few tearful occasions, I did not despair. I’d been so afraid that contracting COVID-19 might mean my kids would temporarily lose their mom to hospitalization or permanently to death, that I was grateful for each of those 52 days I was sick at home.
While I typically get frustrated when I have to be in bed with illness or an RA/RD flare, the stakes felt so high with coronavirus that I was glad to be in my own bed with a nebulizer instead of a hospital bed on a ventilator. More than anything, I felt grateful for my immune system for fighting the virus. I regarded the fatigue that felt like it was sitting in every cell in my body as the result of my immune system using every drop of my body’s energy to fight the virus.
My immune system was focused on the correct target
As a person who has long regarded my immune system with wariness, seeing my immune system target its full force on this scary virus was a sea change. Not only did my immune system successfully fight off COVID-19, it simultaneously backed off of my joints; in spite of suspending my IV treatments, my RA/RD symptoms were incredibly mild.
My immune system was entirely focused on the correct target. Rather than being wary or resentful of my immune system, beating COVID has made me deeply appreciative and grateful for it. Viewing it from this perspective, it even gives me hope that perhaps my immune system could recalibrate more often. Maybe, just maybe, some of the confusion that set in on my immune system when I was a child might clear.
I don’t know if that’s a realistic hope, but I now know that my immune system has the ability to fiercely and effectively fight viruses. Regardless of what the future holds, I am profoundly grateful to live to fight another day.
Right now, what RA tips would most be helpful for you?