Editor’s note: Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes the Gather column for The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine. She wrote early last year about her experience with COVID-19. Here’s how she’s doing.
In early March 2020, the whole world was preparing for lockdown — but I was already there. Stuck at home, sick, I watched as people on TV stripped store shelves of toilet paper and baking supplies, wondering if anything would be left when I emerged from my house.
I tested positive for COVID-19 before anyone even knew it was in the U.S. and have tested positive for antibodies since then. Which means I watched the past year’s events unfold from a strange, rare perch: as a member of the “been there, done that” club.
A year ago, I wrote an essay for The Seattle Times about my illness and recovery to give folks an idea of what it was like, bring hope amid bad news, and tell the world how grateful I was to the folks at the Seattle Flu Study who told me I had COVID-19 in the first place.
Because very few people at the time had recovered from COVID-19, let alone “gone public,” I was suddenly popular. The essay generated hundreds of emails from readers, most of them overwhelmingly kind. I gave interviews to NPR, the CBC and the BBC. “NBC Nightly News” showed me having blood drawn for a research study, which led to a flurry of “Was that you?” messages from acquaintances. I made it onto the front page of the Sunday New York Times — as a subject, not a writer. It was surreal.
But even though I recovered from COVID-19, I was far from feeling completely relieved. I worried about others who got it when I did (the person who gave it to me infected many in what we would now call a superspreader event, long before gatherings were justifiably banned). I also felt guilt about having (unknowingly) passed it along to others.
Pretty much every symptom you’ve heard about emerged among the people I know who’ve had COVID-19: rashes, pinkeye, “COVID toes,” horrible nausea. My senses of taste and smell disappeared but returned after a few days; some recovered folks still find formerly pleasant scents unbearable or can’t taste certain flavors.
I knew I was physically back to normal when I went on a backpacking trip last summer and one day hiked 10 miles, mostly uphill, with a full pack. My legs complained a bit, but I had plenty of stamina and was never out of breath.
One symptom persisted: brain fog. At first, I could focus for only 20 minutes or so before a “reset”: I’d go blank and forget what I’d been doing or saying, sometimes midsentence. I’d have to take a break and start over. It was terrifying, and only after months of gradual improvement could I chalk any remaining fogginess up to the “Groundhog Day” times we all find ourselves in, not permanent brain damage.
As I saw other people struggling for months after getting sick — the so-called “long haulers” — I felt lucky that I wasn’t in worse shape. I also became the person who reminds everyone that options aren’t just death or full recovery. There’s a spectrum of long-term effects, most of which you really don’t want. For all the advantages my COVID-19 survivor status gives me, I’d wait for a vaccine if I were you.
Learning about science
The most heartening aspect of the past year: learning about science and those working tirelessly to overcome this virus — many in Seattle. The University of Washington, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Gates Foundation have all jumped in to help, as have local biotech companies.
The first researcher I heard from after my initial essay ran was eminent Fred Hutch researcher Dr. Larry Corey. During an hourlong phone call, he patiently answered my questions and laid out what scientists hoped to do with the blood of those who’d recovered from COVID-19: study the immune response, develop treatments, research vaccines. Then he asked me if I’d like to help.
I was happy to contribute, as were many others. Over the spring and summer, I gave so much blood that at one point I had to briefly back off because I was nearing the recommended maximum.
Dr. Helen Chu’s group at UW quickly branched from the Seattle Flu Study to collecting blood from recovered people and sending it to institutions around the country. I later found out that some of those early blood samples helped in creating the Moderna vaccine. I’m just going to go ahead and believe mine was one of them.
I got an email from UW’s Dr. Marion Pepper, who wanted to do a deep dive into the immune response of people who’d recovered from COVID-19 — not just antibodies but also T cell and B cell responses. She published the initial results in the journal Cell and is still studying us.
Being the nerd that I am, I took a deep dive of my own into studying the immune system and emerging research about the virus. I started following virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists and public health professionals on social media. I wrapped my head around concepts like confidence intervals and Bayesian statistics. I now have a long list of favorite research papers as well as documents on my laptop with names like “How mRNA Vaccines Work.”
Searching for a brighter new day
But overall, life hasn’t been all that different for me than for everyone else. Like everyone else, I’ve been living in a world where it’s hard to tell one day from another, and a new salad at Trader Joe’s makes for exciting news.
Even though I’m not worried about getting sick, it doesn’t feel right to support anything that might result in someone else getting sick. I traveled a bit, but only when cases were low. I’ve eaten a couple of times in restaurants but mostly have grabbed a lot of takeout. I’ve met in person with members of a small “pod,” mostly of fellow “pos people.” My husband, Bill, and I bought a pop-up tent and an outdoor heater, which made huddling for a quick, distanced winter cocktail hour … almost fun.
Small pleasures have not replaced beloved diversions like live music, but they’ve helped me get by. I’ve taken up playing the ukulele (highly recommended). Never a singer before, I’m working on a duet of “Islands in the Stream” with Bill (his idea). I grew a single red bell pepper last summer and considered it a triumph.
As I’d planned, I’ve volunteered more than I used to, and am hoping to do even more. I’ve given more to charity, especially those awesome organizations helping communities weather the pandemic. I’ve been able to do this partly because I’m one of the lucky people whose work is largely unchanged. I’m privileged in so many ways, more ways than ever.
Many others aren’t as lucky. With everyone else, I’ve watched cases skyrocket and mourned unimaginable numbers of deaths. I’ve followed the rules, wearing a mask and keeping my distance. That’s more important than ever, given the new variants (my immunity to the original might help me out with those … but no one knows how much).
When people ask me about vaccines, I say that I’ll be close to the end of the line. Not because I’m scared of the vaccines — I’m super excited about them — but because everyone else should have a shot (so to speak) before I do.
Even when things are dreary, I’m energized about science, our ability to persevere, and all the ways I’ve seen people helping one another over the past year. Like everyone else, I’m searching the horizon for signs of a brighter new day ahead.