My COVID-19 Experience
Never did I think I’d get COVID-19. Not in my wildest dreams. Because I was obsessively diligent! Diligent with my precautions, always wearing a mask and face shield wherever I was. And I only ever briskly walked wherever I needed to go.
Plus, I was fit! Since the pandemic’s onset, I complemented my daily 10K+ steps (mostly around the house) with consistent, rigorous cardio and strength training. Furthermore, I ate a pretty clean vegan diet, comprising mostly whole, minimally processed plant-based foods. And for years, I’d also cultivated a serious meditation practice, enriched by deep prayer.
So between all that and the fact that I had already received at least my first dose of vaccine (Sinovac), I felt healthy and assured on most fronts.
Still, COVID-19 got the better of me. My first symptoms one evening were a slight cough and fever. Over the next couple of days, I’d develop a headache and nausea, and the fever frequently left me with frigid chills. I felt weak and totally out of my element.
This insidious virus gradually dismantled my defenses, and any romanticized ideas I might have had about being impervious to the disease were quickly shattered.
COVID-19 had humbled me and put me in my place, fast.
The Monster Creeps
I can’t recall ever feeling so tense lying on a bed. Of course, this was no ordinary bed. It was a hospital bed, carrying the weight of my feeble body and my trembling soul.
I shut my eyes, yet the bright lights would pierce my lids and have their way, casting an ominous shade of scarlet. I clenched my jaw and I clenched my fist. My heart raced with dreadful anticipation of what was yet to pierce my thin, dry skin.
And then the needle entered. It was a sharp pain I had never experienced before. I’d never been one to complain about needles to the arm or needles to draw blood, but this… This was a new monster, and it was right in my face for the first time, ever.
I hoped it would be a one-time deal, but then my vein “exploded,” so the nurse tried again. Alas, still no luck, so a new nurse tried. Then another nurse and then another. Four nurses total. Maybe five, I forget. The last nurse who finally succeeded had been whisked away from the ER. Overall, it took seven tries to get my IV inserted: four attempts on my left hand and three more on my right. What a way to experience IV insertion for the first time — seven times nearly all at once.
It felt like hell.
But in the midst of it all, before the successful insertion, there was grace. In the thrall of my pain, there was grace. By the second or third attempt, as tears rolled down my face, a nurse to my left opened her heart to me. “Take my hand,” she said. And I took it, and held tight. The nurse on my right who attempted the insertion would still fail, but it was okay, because someone was there to comfort me.
At some point, it became an experience I can only describe as holy. Nurses kept apologizing for my pain — “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m so, so sorry.” But never once did I feel any anger or resentment. Instead, my consciousness cleaved to an awareness of what was really going on: Souls trying their hardest to help another soul. Love all around, perfect and pure.
As they said their sorries, I’d quickly respond that they had nothing to be sorry about, that they were only doing their job, that I was so thankful for their trying to help me — all of this as a needle kept digging into my veins.
And in a flash, I felt overcome by a desire to bless them all. So I exclaimed a prayer, that they might hear loud and clear amidst the throes of my despair: “Dear God, thank you so much for my nurses. Please bless them and their loved ones. I am so grateful for all their care and for all their love. Hold them close to You, always. Amen.”
The Monster Sneers
That was just the IV insertion. Although unpleasant, it was fleeting. Still, the journey ahead would be grim and dark, and respite would not come easy.
I wrestled with the disease process and its physical symptoms — mainly the cough and overall body malaise. Fortunately, they were mild. But little did I anticipate the psychological toil that would ensue. This monster had other tricks up its sleeve, and it wasn’t done with me yet.
One of the challenges I contended with for a couple of nights was an overwhelming sense of guilt — a guilt for contracting COVID-19 and putting all my close family and friends at risk. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that they were probably petrified not only for my sake, but also for theirs! Did I infect them? Would they get COVID? Would they be hospitalized, too? How could I have been so reckless to get this disease?! All the times I went out to buy fresh produce — especially when I didn’t absolutely have to — hit me like a ton of bricks.
I felt guilty for being at the hospital. For adding to the burden of the doctors and nurses and the entire health care system at large. I occupied a room that could probably have been put to better use for another patient whose condition was more dire than mine.
And I thought about my mom. About how very scared she must have been because I was at the hospital, alone without a watcher. I was fine but I knew she was a mess. And it was all my fault.
I sent voice messages and wrote letters to family and friends apologizing for the whole incident. Everyone was very gracious, offering me their love and support. They assured me that I wasn’t to blame, that of course I hadn’t wished this upon myself. And one person, my dear cousin and neighbor, gave me a very powerful reminder that I’d never forget: that COVID affects not only the body but also one’s mental and emotional well-being.
That helped me snap out of my brooding. This was just the sneering monster in my head trying to delay my recovery.
The Monster Roars
That sense of profound guilt eventually faded. I feel incredibly blessed that it would be replaced instead by a profound sense of gratitude — for my wonderful nurses and doctors, and for the outpouring of love I got from everyone checking in on me. My own long-time practice of centering myself through prayer and meditation was also tremendously helpful.
But the fact remained that I was battling COVID. And not only that, but I had pneumonia. I never experienced shortness of breath and never felt that my symptoms were particularly bothersome, but when my doctors told me that I was also battling pneumonia, I couldn’t help but to check out what Google had to say.
Well, what Google said was terrifying. I read research studies that consistently reported very poor prognoses for people with COVID and pneumonia.
At some point, I literally thought I’d never get out of the hospital. No, not alive. It crossed my mind that I’d be yet another statistic of the thousands of people who’d die alone in their hospital room, never to be seen again by their family and friends because they had COVID.
And late that night, while I was already trying to get some sleep, one of my doctors came in and assessed me. She took my oxygen saturation and noted that it would fluctuate between 92% and 97%. That caught me by surprise because it had never before dipped below 96%.
“It’s going up and down, up and down,” she said. I clearly remember the cadence of her voice, because I was mortified.
“Your condition has worsened since yesterday,” she added. “I’d like to put you on a liter of oxygen.”
In the swift minute that followed, I must have cycled through the entirety of Kubler-Ross’s five-stage model of grief.
Denial. “But I feel fine, doctor! I don’t feel short of breath at all.” And the truth is, I really did feel fine! Physically anyway. I suppose my lungs said otherwise.
The doctor responded, “Don’t worry. You’re here now and we’ll monitor you closely.”
Anger. Not at my doctor, but at my lungs. I was livid at these precious organs that for over two decades I very conscientiously invested in. Never in my life did I smoke, and I never failed to make time for exercise. I’d always thought I had excellent cardiopulmonary health, but now apparently my lungs could fail me anytime in my sleep. How utterly terrifying.
Bargaining. “Do I really need the oxygen, doctor? I feel fine, really.”
“Yes, there’s a possibility that you’ll desaturate during your sleep. We don’t want that to happen.”
Depression. She left the room and assured me that I’d be okay. “Depressed” is a strong word, but I certainly had a depressive bout. Earlier that afternoon, I had learned about COVID pneumonia and entertained the possibility that I wouldn’t survive, and then the doctor implied that my lungs could get starved of oxygen in my sleep. Everything seemed to point in the same direction.
Acceptance. The night nurse put on my nasal cannula, and I thanked her. I recall she seemed perky, and she commented that it was “only one liter.” To a degree, that assured me. In hindsight, I know I blew everything out of proportion. But I was still in the grips of a physical and psychological whirlwind.
That night, the monster was roaring. But deep down, I know it was really only weeping.
The Monster Weeps
The following morning, I sat up in bed and enjoyed the stillness and silence. I picked up my copy of A Course in Miracles and commenced that particular day’s meditation: “God is my refuge and security.”
Having rested and now with a clearer mind, I relinquished all the dark imaginings of the previous night, found my center, and knew that everything was exactly as it should be.
“God is my refuge and security” by no means is a static or passive declaration. It’s a clarion call to action. For God is Love. And it’s only in loving another that one finds refuge and security.
So that day, I was going to wipe away my monster’s tears. And I would dwell within my worldly circumstance with an otherworldly sense of purpose. In every moment, in every conversation, in every interaction, my purpose would be to give love and to receive love.
One nugget of wisdom in spirituality is that in order to have something, you need to give it away. It was time to put this principle to practice.
To feel love, you need to give love.
To feel peace, you need to give peace.
To feel hope, you need to give hope.
To feel a particular feeling, you need to help another experience that same feeling.
And so I began with my mom. As delicately and carefully as I could, I explained to her the events that unfolded the previous day. I was honest, and I was calm. And I assured her that I would be okay. She heard the peace in my voice, and I heard the peace in hers. Yes, everything would be okay.
Next, all the doctors, nurses, midwives, phlebotomists, ward men, and housekeeping staff who’d enter my room. Every morning during my hospital stay, the prayer etched in my heart was that God use me in any way, shape, or form to be a blessing unto their lives, as they were all a blessing unto mine.
So I’d greet them as warmly as I could. I’d ask for their names, ask how they were and, when time permitted, ask for their stories. “How long have you worked here?” “Are you happy?” “What are your future goals?”
For the most part, I tried to speak in the local dialect (Bisaya). It was broken and at times maybe awkward, but I like to think that the love behind it was perfectly clear. That was all that mattered.
I also tried to make life easy for the nurses. For example, I was super diligent about jotting down my own I/O. I only ever used urinals (I asked for three of them) so they could accurately record my output, and I always used 240cc paper cups so they could easily record my intake.
I made it a point to try to remember everyone’s name, and to let them hear me say it. Leslie, Bell, Jana, Queenie, Jeb, Alan, Heidi, Bryan, Avi, Jeia, Earnie, and Soy Soy are the names that grace my memory. There were more whose names I never got or regretfully escape me, but I’ll never forget the love that anyone ever made me feel.
During one afternoon, I’d meet again the nurse who went above and beyond to care for me the day I was admitted. I recognized her eyes.
“You’re the one who held my hand when my IV was inserted, right?”
“Yes, sir! Aww, you remembered.”
“Of course! You really helped me that day. It meant a lot to me. Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”
“You’re welcome, sir. I’m glad you’re better now.”
“What’s your name?”
“Oh sorry! I’m Nurse Alan, and I’ll be your nurse this shift!”
“Thank you, Ma’am Alan. You’re such a wonderful nurse.”
Later that evening, when Alan took my vital signs, I’d learn that she was a fresh nursing grad and had worked at that hospital for only a year. Her dream was to become a doctor someday and serve indigent communities in far-flung areas in the Philippines. I told her how very proud her parents must have been of her, and she shared that they were poor but did everything they could to put her through school. She’d make it a mission to give them a good life.
Nurse Alan teared up and excused herself from the room. It was a privilege to hear her story and have her reveal her heart to me yet again.
The Monster Finds Peace
Things were looking up. Repeat blood tests and chest X-rays showed improvement, and my fever was gone. The antiviral and the antibiotics were working. I made good rapport with all my doctors and nurses, and every encounter was a nice lesson in giving and receiving love.
Before I was hospitalized, I told all my work clients that I needed some time off because I was sick.
But during my hospital stay, there was one new client whom I continued to work with (in a very slow and minimal capacity). He had hired me to edit his book about how the laws of the physical universe and the laws of the spiritual realm are identical. I’d spend maybe just under an hour each day reviewing his manuscript. I had fun because everything resonated with me and felt so appropriate to what I was going through at the time.
Incidentally, my client was hospitalized, too; we both communicated with each other from a hospital! We’d extend our well-wishes and support, and it was clear to us both that the fact we had crossed each other’s paths was no accident.
And then there was one other client who reached out to me on the third or fourth day of my admission. She asked me to edit her latest article. I’d have refused, but upon opening the file, I saw that the article was about helping people overcome their fears related to COVID! It was an inspirational piece intended to give others hope and inner peace amidst the pandemic’s chaos. It was short and I agreed to edit it. In doing so, I felt hope and peace, too.
To feel hope, give hope. To feel peace, give peace. To feel love, give love.
The universe surely conspired to prepare me for what would come next: the dreaded change in the IV insertion site! It’s common protocol to change the site after a certain number of days to prevent infection.
One morning, my nurse perkily said it was time for the change! I loved her bubbly personality, but the truth is that I was feeling anything but bubbly. I told her that it had taken seven attempts to insert my IV the first time, so if I definitely had to get a replacement, could it pretty please be done by the ER nurse?
She said the station’s head nurse could do it. And my cousin, a doctor at the hospital who had thankfully made great strides to get me admitted, phoned the head nurse to advocate for me and maybe offer tips.
In the meantime, I psyched myself up. I meditated, prayed, put myself in a hot shower, applied warm compresses to both hands, drank probably five gallons of water to distend my veins — you name it. I might have been a little frantic, but it was all in the service of laying claim to my peace.
One of the themes in my client’s book is that our thoughts shape our perception, which in turn shape our experience. So I put myself in a zen-like trance because I was going to experience zen, darn it! Zen was mine, even as the needle would dig into my veins again.
As the needle entered, my response was different from the first time. I still felt the sharp, initial pain. But somehow my mind could command a relaxation response. I didn’t resist the pain but accepted it. I breathed into it, and it lessened.
And the head nurse? He succeeded in one shot, and on my non-dominant hand! He was a rockstar, and ever since that day I’ve been lavishing his praises. (Thank you, Sir Earnie!)
The Monster Has Fun!
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says that “it may look as if the situation is creating suffering, but ultimately this is not so — your resistance is.”
Eventually, I got into a groove and gave up any sort of angst about being a COVID patient. I was one, and that was that, and I totally surrendered to the experience. In essence, I made friends with the “monster.” And then I became it. Transcending the dualistic thinking of “me” and “COVID,” we were one, and we’d have fun.
Now, I would be fully present to my life circumstance, and thereby fully available to the healing of the universe. Indeed, God was my refuge and security.
Fun was cooking and reading.
But first, let me talk about my room. My doctor cousin had booked me a presidential suite, apparently the only room available in the whole hospital. It had two beds, three couches, one reclining chair, a big TV, a tall AC, a spacious CR, a hot/cold water dispenser, a ginormous kitchen, and a stunning view of the highway and Macajalar Bay. I’d have continued my daily 10K steps across the huge stadium had my doctors let me.
It was heaven. My cousin also lent me her air purifier. It not only cleaned the air but also released cascades of mist. If I had died, I would have already been in the clouds. Yes, it was heaven.
Anyway, back to cooking. I was lucky that right before I left home to admit myself into the hospital, my weekly fresh produce arrived! So I took that with me, along with a few other vegan staples: soy milk, almond milk, organic beans, organic quinoa, lentils, oatmeal, veggie broth, tofu, nutritional yeast, mushroom seasoning, flaxseed, tomato paste, nori, and a bunch of fruit.
During my entire stay at the hospital, I had a robust appetite. I was always excited to receive the hospital food! The dietary staff tried their best to accommodate my vegan diet, and I imagine it shouldn’t have been too hard. But I was probably one of the very few vegans — if not the only vegan ever — they served. So, there were a few funny hiccups in the meals they served that I can laugh about.
For instance, one evening, I was served fish. I felt bad for the fish but was ecstatic that I could smell it! Later that night, I quickly put together a note, written with my non-dominant hand (my dominant hand was splinted), to help the dietary staff understand my diet:
The meals they provided usually comprised a medley of two or three lightly stir-fried vegetables, along with some rice and fruit. It sounds ordinary but I loved every single bite. They seasoned everything so perfectly.
Still, the truth is, the food was never enough. So I cooked to bulk up my meals. The only equipment I had was a rice cooker. It worked miracles…
I knew that the meds given to me were probably decimating my intestinal microbiome. Hence, I did everything in my power to feed my little gut bacteria friends. Fiber fiber fiber! Lutein, flavonoids, coumarins, indoles, isoflavones, lignans, organosulfur compounds, plant sterols, and more. Antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, anti-cancer. I made sure all my meals were packed with quality, healing nutrition.
The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said that “All disease begins in the gut,” and I believe that that’s where health begins, too.
Incidentally, for fun, I requested that my doctors include a lipid profile as part of my blood work. They weren’t originally going to test this but I was curious to know how my vegan diet had (hopefully) improved my lipid markers. Years before I turned vegan, my total cholesterol was around 220mg/dL. The latest results made me leap for joy…
When I wasn’t cooking or eating or meditating or working, I was reading. I had four books with me, and I finished one of them, called Into the Magic Shop.
It’s about a little boy, James, who goes into a magic shop to learn a few fun childhood magic tricks. But he’d befriend the magic shop owner’s mother, a kind woman, Ruth, who promised to teach him “real magic” if only he’d come by to practice every day for the summer. James agreed and was an eager student.
The real magic that Ruth taught James involved cultivating a meditation practice that had three elements: relaxing the body, calming the mind, and opening the heart. This magic would ultimately lift James from poverty and over the years turn him into a wildly successful neurosurgeon. Now, he’s a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
Although a neurosurgeon, Dr. James Doty places great focus on studying the heart. His research shows that the heart has its own kind of intelligence, and that the vagus nerve that connects the heart and brain actually transmits more signals from the heart to the brain than from the brain to the heart.
Dr. James’ story moved me and reminded me of Nurse Alan, the one who on several occasions opened her heart to me over the course of my hospitalization. She, like James, led with compassion, and I believe one day she’ll become a truly successful, compassionate doctor.
Before I was discharged from the hospital, I had the privilege of being able to gift Into the Magic Shop to Alan.
It was the best way I knew to make an exit: by hopefully uplifting her life as much as she uplifted mine.
The Monster Rejoices!
My doctors said I was free of COVID and free to go home! They recommended I continue to rest and recuperate for at least two weeks. Totally fine by me!
When I got home, free of IVs and splints, the first thing I did was quickly whip up a veggie and tofu stir fry. It never tasted so good.
I also drowned myself in durian. I’m thankful that my tastebuds for durian seem to be on point. There are certain foods for which I think my sense of taste is still slightly blunted, but not for durian!
Over the next week, I’d continue to meditate, pray, and reflect on my COVID experience. On numerous occasions, I’d find myself balling my eyes out because of the sheer joy that made my heart swell with gratitude. It’s a sensation that I can barely put into words. So, I’ve also felt moved to thank people another way — by sending them (vegan) food!
One morning, I caught a glimpse of an image of a healthcare professional on a box of KN95 facemasks. That person became the symbol of every single nurse and doctor who entered my room and cared for me, and then a symbol of every single nurse and doctor in the world trying to care for anyone. My heart was wide open and I wanted everyone to be taken in.
My book client might call it Pure Awareness or Cosmic Consciousness. I’d call it Love. I’d call it God.
A week prior to my onset of symptoms, and two weeks prior to my hospitalization, I was supposed to get my second dose of vaccine. But because of a scheduling error, it got postponed. It crossed my mind how unlucky I was; had I gotten my second dose sooner, as originally scheduled, maybe none of this would have happened.
But I believe that nothing occurs by chance, that there was a reason I had to face a monster, realize it was me, accept it, and make peace with it…
My cousin doctor reminded me that we are to always trust in God’s perfect timing, and she said that I shouldn’t think of myself as unlucky. Rather, I am very blessed. She’s 100% correct.
For many years now, I’ve always aspired for a more “enlightened” perspective about the people around me and the circumstances I inhabit. It’s a perspective that always acknowleges the sacred oneness between people, animals, nature, and God. So, I don’t think I necessarily learned anything new from my experience. At least not in terms of concepts.
But the deepest learning is always experiential. And the highest wisdom always leads back to the heart. For me, I think my greatest lesson was in the deep application of something that all of us at our core already know to be true: that in any given moment, even when life becomes difficult, the healing of love is available to anyone who sincerely seeks it.
And it’s in giving that love away that we find it.
In this whole process, I feel like a lot of my relationships with family and friends have deepened and become so enriched. This has become the blessing of COVID-19.
When I was confused, You illumined my thinking.
When I was angry, I felt Your arms around me.
When I was afraid, I knew I was not alone.
Make of me a person who does all of this for others.
Fill my mind with Your thoughts.
Flood my heart with Your love.
And infuse all that I do, and all that I am, with Your most Holy Spirit,
That I might bring healing to the world.