Monday, April 13, 2020

A COVID-19 ENCOUNTER by Lauren Karwoski

(Ed. - Here is your classmate, Lauren Karwoski's recent experience with the virus. Deepest thanks to her for sharing this with us. I'm sure this will bring it home for many of you. It certainly has for me.)

March 7th: It’s spring break week, finally. My friends and I have been planning our trip to Barcelona for a few months now. Lately we’ve been hearing warnings and watching the news as COVID-19 is beginning to spread worldwide.
“Spain only has 2 confirmed cases, you’re just as safe there, as you are in Tampa” our families rationalize.
We stock up on hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes and head to the airport.

March 10th: We take turns getting up to wash our hands before sitting down to eat at a local restaurant. We wipe down the table, as everyone grows increasingly more uneasy.
“Confirmed cases in Spain reached 500 today,” one of my friends announces, reading from Twitter. We discuss our fears but try to enjoy the rest of our day.

Later that night, we sit around a table in our Airbnb, getting ready for dinner. In sync, all our phones chime with a notification; The University of Tampa is switching to online classes indefinitely.
“Should we be worried?”
“Our flight home is in a few days. We’ll be fine.”

March 11th: We meet up with fellow UT students for a drink before preparing to experience Barcelona’s nightlife. We’re anxious but keep reminding each other that we’re young. It's just a cold. The media says we’ll be fine.

We taxi to a nightclub and wait in line. In a single moment, the entire atmosphere changes. Everyone around us seems to take out their phones at the same time. The tension in the air is palpable.

President Trump has announced a 30-day European Union travel ban, effective in 48 hours. The details are unclear.

We look around and begin to lock eyes with fellow American students who we do not know. There is an understanding in the looks of fear exchanged. My friends and I immediately rush to a taxi.

I pull out my phone to see multiple missed calls and texts from friends and family. The details of the travel ban are so vague that we believe we will be stuck in Europe for 30 days, if we cannot get back to The United States before the order starts.

The taxi ride is loud as we all call our parents, frightened and seeking guidance. For the first time in my life, I hear panic and desperation in my mother’s voice. She puts me on speaker phone and types furiously at the keyboard trying to find me a flight back to the US. The websites repeatedly crash, as prices skyrocket.

The 20-minute phone call feels like an hour. I hold my breath, feeling helpless and childlike, waiting for my mother to figure out a plan.

$2,700 later, I am booked on a flight to London, and then Tampa, leaving in 4 hours. I feel fortunate and a tad bit guilty, as I know booking this emergency flight home is a luxury, many cannot afford. I return to the Airbnb in a daze, quickly pack my belongings and get in a taxi with a few members of our group who were able to get flights home as well.

March 12th: We arrive at the airport just after midnight. There are massive lines of people, primarily American students, sprawled out with their phones and laptops, many of whom came to the airport without having a flight booked. People murmur among each other, trying to figure out paths home. 

My flight to London feels like a blur as I’m frightened and going into my 24th hour without sleep.

I arrive and walk through Gatwick Airport passing countless signs detailing COVID-19 prevention. Over the intercom they repeatedly ask people who are traveling from China or Italy to identify themselves. Everyone is on edge.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I finally board my final flight to Tampa alone, wipe down my seat, and buckle my seat belt.

My friend group has dispersed. Two are meeting me back in Tampa, others are on flights back to their home states, and a few remain in Barcelona, unable to purchase sooner return flights.

I arrive back in the Tampa airport and am surprised at the lack of screening or preventative measures. I go through customs with ease, meeting up with 2 of the friends I had traveled with. Despite not being given any information at the airport, we return to my home and decide to home quarantine together for 14 days.

March 13th: As soon as we wake up, we call a COVID-19 helpline to ask for guidance as we are unsure of the proper measures we should take. Our instincts were correct, we’re told to home quarantine for 14 days. We order groceries online and settle in.

March 16th: I wake up late, and feel an ache radiating from my back through my neck. I feel fatigued and weak. I take my temperature; 98.6. I assume I’m worn down from my travels, take some Tylenol and continue with my day.  I skip dinner, as I have no appetite and head to bed early.

March 17th: I wake up around 3:00 A.M. with sharp pains radiating from the center of my back, down towards my hips. I cry from the pain as I pull myself out of bed and take Tylenol. I lay awake until the medication kicks in and I can finally fall back asleep.

I awake again around noon, feeling shaky and exhausted. I force myself to drink electrolyte fluids, as I have no appetite. I spend the entire day falling in and out of sleep on my couch, a heating pad pressed to my back, attempting to soothe the debilitating body aches. My temperature again is normal, 98.6. I take DayQuil as I start to think I may have the flu. I feel a tightness and mild pain in my chest, and assume it is from anxiety. I keep reminding myself that I do not have a fever or cough, therefore it cannot possibly be COVID-19.

By the end of the day my worries get the best of me as I watch the news. I call a local urgent care facility, and the staff informs me that I cannot be seen because I have traveled internationally. They refer me and my quarantined roommates to one of the drive-through testing sites that are opening the following day across South Florida. We decide to go the following morning at 9:00 A.M. when they open.

March 18th: My alarm goes off after another sleepless night. My roommates and I drive to a testing site where we are met with a line of roughly 15 cars, police presence and various workers in full face shields and protective wear. It is reminiscent of a cinematic scene.

We are given masks as we roll down a single window to speak to the healthcare workers. We tell them of our travels and my recent development of symptoms. Our temperatures are taken, and once again, we are relieved to all be fever-free.

One by one the bristled swabs are thrust into our noses. To my surprise, the discomfort only lasts a few seconds. We are told we will be receiving our results in 2-5 days. We drive home and I yet again fall asleep, exhausted and riddled with body aches.

That night we receive an email that our graduation has been cancelled and that the remainder of our senior year will be online. It feels like the least of my worries in the moment.

March 19th: For the third night in a row, I awake in the early hours, however this time it’s different. I feel paralyzed by the pain radiating through my body. I have never in my life felt pain on this scale before. My chest is tight and aches, as I lack the strength or energy to even cry. I feel scared and alone. I lay awake until morning on my heating pad, taking Tylenol exactly every 4 hours. I consider going to the Emergency Room but fear if I do not have COVID-19, I could contract it there.

Around noon I get myself out of bed and return to my spot on the couch. My chest feels hot after walking down the stairs and attempting to take a deep breath. I have developed a mild cough as well. It’s been 3 days since I have eaten a proper meal, so I force myself to have a few sips of a smoothie, only to discover that my sense of taste and smell are completely gone. My attempt to start limiting my contact with my roommates. For the first time I start to believe I have contracted COVID-19.

That night before bed, I read a New York Times article about a new symptom people are reporting: a loss of taste and smell.

March 20th-22nd: The days blur together. My roommates and I continue to be fever-free. When I am not sleeping, I lay awake on my heating pad attempting to soothe my aches and cough. I take peace in knowing I should receive my test results any day. I am frustrated by friends and family who insist young people do not “get that sick”, that I must be “overreacting.”  I step on a scale before bed to see that I have lost 7 lbs. since becoming ill.

March 23rd: For the first time in days, I can sleep comfortably through the night. My body aches finally begin to ease, giving me slight relief. I am grateful that my energy and appetite have returned, however my sense of taste and smell have not. I am still coughing throughout the day, while having mild chest pain, however I am certain I am almost near full recovery. My roommates have luckily remained healthy and fever-free.

March 24th: It has now been one week since we were tested and have not received results. I am extremely fortunate to finally consider myself symptom free, however my anxiety remains. I fear spreading it to others and am desperate to hear back regarding my status. I think about those who are still sick and awaiting results, and the fear they must feel as well.

I call the drive through testing site, and the staff informs me the labs are backed up. Results are now taking 6-10 business days. They refer me to the CDC website to see the protocol on recovery. 72 hours symptom free and 7 days from first symptom are required to end home isolation. Even though I have not received my test results yet, I decide to follow this guideline as a precaution. My roommates continue to home isolate.

March 27th: It has been two weeks since we returned from Spain. I am over 72 hours symptom free and finally feel comfortable leaving the house to take a walk and go to the grocery store wearing a mask. I have a newfound appreciation for being able to comfortably breath while taking a stroll outdoors.

March 31st: An unsettling 13 days after being tested I finally receive my results; positive for COVID-19. I do not feel surprised, or afraid, but rather consoled knowing that I have already fully recovered.

I later receive a call from The Florida Department of Health, asking me to detail my experience, timeline of symptoms and testing. I am asked to identify any person or place I have had contact with during my incubation period, and illness and l am relieved to only report my roommates. Even though it was difficult and emotionally taxing at times, I am reassured and proud of our decision to home quarantine for such a long period of time. I hang up the phone, and am finally able to take a deep breath, knowing that my COVID-19 experience is finally over. However, again I am met with guilt, knowing many will not be as lucky.

Aftermath: Since contracting COVID-19 I have physically recovered but am still dealing with the mental repercussions. When watching the news and seeing the death toll rise, I am met with a feeling of guilt and unease. I see reports of healthy young people, falling fatally ill and it is difficult for me to process how I was able to fully recover from the same exact illness. I have since signed up to be a plasma donor to aid recovering patients. I often feel confused and alone as I do not have anyone to speak to who can relate to what I have experienced.

I grow increasingly frustrated watching my peers neglect social distancing guidelines, working out in groups and having house parties. I hear many talking about how young people do not have to worry, and am reminded of the painful, frightening hours I laid awake in bed, feeling more ill than I ever had before. Every single person has a responsibility to help control the spread of COVID-19. Young people are not invincible. I will never again take my health for granted.


  1. Lauren, thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure that was not something that you found easy to share with classmates you don't know very well, but I appreciate that you did. After reading this, I have a greater appreciation for the fact that I am home with family, I am safe, and I am healthy. I can only imagine how awful this experience was for you, but I am extremely happy to hear that you have mostly recovered. I will say that although I understand your reasoning, try not to feel guilty for the way your situation turned out. Yes, there are many, many others that have not been quite as fortunate, but the more you share your story like you did with us, the more people decide to stay home to keep others safe. That is all you can do. Stay Safe.