By Michelle Benvenisti, as told to Jennifer Clopton
Somewhere in the middle of my battle against COVID-19, I began to think I was going to die. And even worse than that – I thought I was going to die alone. Anyone who lives alone has likely wondered and worried at some point how they would get help if something serious happens to them. COVID-19 turned that fear into a stark and startling potential reality for me.
COVID-19 is an isolating illness. Everyone is left to fight it alone to some degree. People in the ICU are rarely, if ever, allowed visitors. If you live with other people, you have to isolate yourself in a separate room so you don’t give it to others. And when people like me who live alone get it, we must fight the emotional, mental, and physical battle by ourselves. I consider myself to be an independent woman. I live in NYC, have traveled to over 50 countries and take care of myself. But fighting this illness alone in my apartment tested me in ways I could have never imagined. It was the hardest, most terrifying experience of my life.
Day after day I struggled with serious breathing issues. Each breath I took was so shallow I was afraid to go asleep because I feared I wouldn’t wake up. I also had a fever, dizzy spells, shivers, pneumonia, excessive thirst, nausea, mild pink eye, a rash, lack of appetite, loss of smell, and mounting anxiety. My body was the weakest it has ever been. I felt like I was down to just 10% of my usual self, and I didn’t have the security of knowing someone was on the other side of the door to check on me and ensure I was alive.
On one of my worst days, I woke up thinking I was a bit better, so I took a shower – only to get so dizzy that I blacked out, collapsing on the bathroom floor. When I regained consciousness, I realized I had knocked all sorts of things over trying to drag myself to my couch.
At that point I realized that even though I was physically alone, I couldn’t ride this out alone. I had to search for and seek out sources of support to get me through this. Here are 3 things I recommend that helped me triumph over this terrifying illness.
Rely on technology to stay connected
I’m lucky to have an amazing family – two brothers, a sister, and my parents – who were incredible through this. I ended up relying on video chats with them in ways I could never have imagined before getting the coronavirus. Video chats became a literal lifeline for me. This is a slow-moving virus, and I was so sick that I had no sense of perspective about how I was doing day to day. I relied heavily on telemedicine with the doctors and checked in regularly with my family as they monitored my progress, telling me if they were seeing improvements or not.
My sister helped me with breathing exercises through Facetime. And after I passed out in the bathroom, I feared it happening again, so I would call her on my iPhone and leave it in the bathroom while I showered so she could keep tabs on me until I was done.
Sharing my experience through social media was also an extremely beneficial way to feel connected to others. Initially I hesitated to do so, but after several challenging weeks, I posted my experience, along with my offer to help others with COVID-19, on Facebook. The response, support, suggestions, love, and prayers I got in return was astounding. What a gift it was. There is great power in having a sense of community, so even at the depths of my weakness, I forced myself to respond to calls and messages and participate in my city’s daily 7 p.m. clap for frontline workers. I knew I needed to draw in strength and support from any way I could get it.
Accept socially distant help when it’s offered
Even if you feel alone, you are not. Look around. There are likely people who want to help you, so say yes when they offer. Or if you need something – ask. This one was hard for me. At my age, I never thought I would come to rely so heavily on my parents. I was losing weight rapidly and didn’t have the strength to do anything about it. While they live over 30 minutes away, my 78-year-old mom and 82-year-old dad would drop off matzoh ball soup, nutritious meals my brother made, Gatorade and fruit, leaving it in a bag on a railing outside my building. Going downstairs while following all of the precautions, including wearing a mask, gloves and spraying disinfectant in my wake, was exhausting. I lost 17 pounds, but I truly believe my family’s efforts kept me alive and literally nursed me back to health from afar.
Prioritize mental health – in addition to physical health
This virus is incredibly taxing emotionally, so even while sick, I had to remind myself about taking care of my mental health. Each time I heard or read the news of a devastating COVID-19 story, it added to my anxiety and worsened my breathing. Instead, I streamed live animal and nature programs and forced myself to stay positive with constant reminders from my friends that "you're okay", "you will get through this" and "you're stronger than the virus." I recall one evening where my anxiety was at its worst, fearing I wouldn’t make it through the night. I spoke with my mother and father (who is a psychologist), expressing that I had been afraid to fall asleep for fear that I wouldn’t wake up. They gave me advice on how to manage my nightly anxiety. This taught me a lesson that while I am incredibly blessed to have that support in my life, we have to lean on people who can be positive and give us strength, especially when we don’t have it.
It took me 26 days to finally feel 60% of myself, and I am still working on reconditioning myself back to normal. I kept hearing it takes 14 days to recover, but the reality is that the worse your symptoms are, the longer it will take to improve.
This virus exacerbated my worst fear – dying alone – and I’m still rattled by that. I don’t know how long it will take for me to feel okay about that, so I’m trying to practice patience and nurture myself.
While I was relieved to learn that my second test results showed “negative,” and I’ve been cleared by the doctor to be outside while practicing social distancing, I’m still experiencing the isolation like so many others who live alone. I’ve even experienced some fearing my presence. Through all of this, I still feel that I am one of the lucky ones to have survived it and to be incredibly blessed for my family and friends who continue to be there for me every step of the way. I trust that, in time, this will all be behind us and we will all be able to re-engage with our loved ones again.
Michelle Benvenisti lives in New York City where she is in charge of Learning and Development for WebMD. She continues to provide support to others going through this, and as soon as she is able, she plans to donate her plasma and eventually return to her love of traveling.