My COVID Fight Taught Me This — Take Chances, Live a Full Life
36-yr-old Tanya Aggarwal spent 11 days in hospital. She made it — but this is also the story of those who didn’t.
I am writing this hooked up to oxygen in a hospital bed in Delhi and unable to breathe on room air.
Rehaan (squealing with delight on the swing): “Mumma! Push me higher so I can touch the sky!”
Me (equally delighted): “There you go, Rehaan – fly!”
Anything can happen. To anyone.
Sulabh (my husband): Tanya – you have to try to breathe. Deep breath. Come on.
COVID-19 entered our home despite all possible precautions. People who know us are aware that our risk appetite is at the extreme lower end of the spectrum. Even in New Delhi’s annual pollution season, we are famous for living like hermits in the comfort of our air purified home.
I cannot think of a single thing that my family and I could have done differently. We were careful. We went nowhere. We worked, exercised, attended online school, wore masks, took no flights, skipped a friend’s wedding and paid our taxes. We don’t smoke.
And what did we get?
Five positive cases. Two hospitalisations.
COVID-19 literally floated to us through the air.
Days 1-3 of Disease
It caught Sulabh first. Badly. He’s been isolating from us for five days (at the time of writing this piece). I am tired. Rehaan is bewildered.
Rehaan: “Why are you wearing two masks? Can I see Papa? Why can’t you sleep in my room?”
Me: “Corona is here, Rehaan. I have to save you.”
Rehaan: “Okay, but sleep where I can see you, otherwise I get scared. Also, I put tape on all the door handles to save us from the germs.”
Me: “Well done! Don’t worry – I’ll sleep right outside your door.”
Rehaan and I developed fevers today. It’s coming.
Days 4-10 of Disease
M, my mother: “Tanya – Sulabh’s CT scan looks bad. He has to go in. Try not to worry.”
Sulabh has been in hospital for four days. It’s spreading. I can feel the pain radiating. Can’t sit up. Can’t talk. But can breathe.
M: “Tanya – can you hear me? Good news! Sulabh is coming home today.”
Rehaan: “Mumma, you are very hot. Go to sleep – here is my special pillow to help you sleep.”
Me: “Thanks, Rehaan.”
I am 36. No breathing issues. Adept at burpees and planks. I eat grilled fish. I don’t do dessert. Why did my oxygen drop so late in the day? NO idea (but I would later be told that my immune system was too healthy).
Day 11 of Disease
M: “How is she?”
Sulabh: “It’s been dropping - 89ish.”
M: “Turn the phone. Tanya! Look at me. Get up and do those breathing exercises. Otherwise, I’ll have to come there and force you.”
Me: “No, don’t expose yourself. I’ll do it.”
Wow. What an effort it is to breathe.
Sulabh: “Let’s get that concentrator? The deal with the S family is whoever needs it first.”
M: “We have the same deal with the B family. They have confirmed we can pick it up.”
Time to turn prone. Heave. When did turning over become so difficult? Panting like a tired dog.
Voices in the background: “Yes, connect it like that. See how the water bubbles — use filtered water only. Seems to be working. Let’s hope we don’t need it.”
Day 12 of Disease (AM)
What’s happening to me?
Voices in the background: “Oh God. What should we do? Turn her prone? Call M.”
Do you remember the defining image of Godhra 2002? The man with teary eyes and hands folded, pleading for his life? You can see death in his eyes. Choking is a bit like that.
Sulabh: “Tanya — turn. Her oxygen is 86... 83... 86... no, it’s going down. Tanya — breathe. Look at me — take a breath, exhale to the side. Good. Again. Other side.” (dialling M)
Gasping for air.
Rehaan: “Papa, what’s wrong with Mumma?”
Sulabh: “Rehaan, she’s going to be fine — wait in the living room with Teddy. Want some ice cream?”
Rehaan: “Yes, chocolate chip!”
Sulabh: “Ok, I’m coming. Go, wait for me.”
Please, Mr PM. The room is full of air but I can’t breathe. I am not ‘atmanirbhar’ right now.
Sulabh: “Started the concentrator. Glad we did a dry run last night.”
M: “Quick, get the mask on her. We have to keep her stable until we find a bed.”
Ah. Breathing. Electricity, please don’t go.
Hospital Day 1 / Day 12 of Disease
Have you ever felt like you’re dying? They say your entire past life flashes before your eyes. They are wrong. It’s not the past that you think about — it’s the future. The milestone birthdays that are left to celebrate, the graduations that are yet to be attended, the everyday family meals that are yet to be had.
The car ride to the hospital. Windows down. No power. No concentrator. No oxygen. Masked up — yes, another layer to shut out the air. Death dreams. Rehaan — was this our last hug?
Sulabh: “One breath at a time. There you go. We are almost there.”
Back to my death dream.
“Come, Tanya,” says my dad who died in 1993. “Come with me – I’ve been waiting for company for so long.” “No, Papa!” I tell him. “I am younger than when you went! I have unfinished business. It’s not my time yet!”
Made it! But the Emergency entrance is blocked by an empty car. Come on, please move. Don’t you know I can’t breathe? Oh, I didn’t realise. No one can hear me. I don’t have a voice.
Wheelchair. Hooked to a tube. Waiting for a bed. Staring. Drifting.
Voices in the background: “This hospital ran out of oxygen a few days ago, didn’t it? Yes, but don’t worry. The situation is improving.”
Hospital Day 2 / Day 13 of Disease
“Can you count for us? Take a deep breath, hold and count until 30. We should hear you count.”
Inhale. One. Two. Cough.
“Alright, relax. You are going to be fine. Train your mind to stay strong.”
PPE rustling. I can see the smiles in their eyes.
“How are you feeling? Let’s start your IV. Don’t worry. Just a few days.”
Nurses. Doctors. Hospital staff. You are running this country today. Always smiling. It’s your pictures that deserves to be splashed across billboards and vaccination certificates.
Hospital Day 3 / Day 14 of Disease
“Remember the counting exercise?”
Inhale. One. Cough.
“Alright, relax. We’ll check in again tomorrow.”
Glad Sulabh insisted on packing the Kindle along with me.
Me: “Hey, SK, any book reccos?”
SK: “’Educated’ by Tara Westover?”
Me: “Oh ok, I went retro – ‘Gone with the Wind’. Explains the state of my breath also.”
My good friend, A, also has a late-stage oxygen drop. We spend the morning finding a bed for him — over social media since the government has sent an ‘out-of-office email’ and run off.
A: “Tanya, are you able to be mobile with oxygen? For bathroom visits? I am dying on those.”
Don’t laugh. It’s a serious question. Have you ever tried shitting while gasping for air? Do I have to make a choice?
Hospital Day 4 / Day 15 of Disease
“You’re no worse, Tanya. Let’s keep monitoring. Please eat. Hydrate.”
The day of bad news — a senior from law school dead, the wife of another senior from law school dead, a high school classmate dead, a senior partner in another law firm dead, two friends lost parents. Just like that. Study for 20 years; slave for 20 years; and poof! Gone.
Me: “Sulabh, my life insurance policy is on the top shelf in the middle cupboard.”
Wait. No, Mr PM and Mr Delhi CM. I am past my death dream days. I will not become just another nameless, faceless statistic in your regime. I will fight. I will get out of this.
Ask for my laptop to be delivered tomorrow. Cue ‘I Will Survive’. Do whatever works. You got this!
A needs plasma – SOS request. What the hell? He was doing fine.
He’s got it. He’s a mini-celebrity. Phew.
It’s late. Come on, sleep-wave. Fight that steroid and hit me. You know I can’t do it without you.
Hospital Day 5 / Day 16 of Disease
“You look better than yesterday! It’s good that you’re eating.”
There is no way anyone can have me as death number ### of the day. No freaking way. Cue ‘1984’ on Kindle and ‘Tubthumping’ on Spotify.
Ah, laptop is here. Collaborate on a blog with a friend. Check. Check. Check. Feeling productive. Achievements unlocked.
“Let’s reduce her oxygen flow slightly and see how she copes. Tanya, you’re going to make it.”
Going to live a new life. This is rebirth.
Hospital Day 6 / Day 17 of Disease
Finish ‘They Came Like Swallows’. Buy ‘The Stand’. Tempted to see ‘Contagion’ again. Why not ‘Friends’ re-runs? Don’t avoid the situation. Address it.
“Looking better! Can you talk?”
Me: “Only to say thanks to you and the hospital staff. And for video calls with Rehaan!”
“How did the lower oxygen flow treat you?”
Me: “Okay at rest but with any movement, I felt hot and tired! Breathing = cardio workout!”
“That’s fine. Let’s bring the flow back up and take it slow. More experiments tomorrow. You’re on the right track.”
Dance to Lady Gaga in bed. Nurse enters with injection and bursts out laughing. I’m on the right track, baby. I was born to survive.
Me: “M, please send me deodorant tomorrow. I’m starting to smell myself.”
A Long Road to Recovery
Can you believe that I have to practise breathing? Something I took for granted for 36 years.
I still have a long way to go. A long way to go before I will be able to walk around for more than 30 seconds. I can’t breathe without feeling large imaginary hands closing down my throat to stop the air from going through. Any sudden movement creates the knock-out effect of a punch in the gut. Sometimes, it feels like there is an elephant sitting on my chest and it just refuses to move.
I have a long way to go before I will be able to give my five-year old a ‘pick-up hug’ or chase him around in the park. But I will get there. I know I will.
Have Dinner With Family, Go to the Park — Take Chances. You Have a Life to Live
Have you read How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen? TL;DR version here and if you’re really lazy, then here. I read it after a miscarriage in 2019. I remember that time — sitting on my bed in an adult diaper after taking the pills, waiting for the ‘exit’ while furiously typing on my laptop because the client wanted his agreement yesterday. Is this too much information for you? You can handle it. At the time, I thought yes, I totally understand what my friend Clay is saying. I have to allocate my time, my resources. But I didn’t do much about it. You know what — I understand it better today. So, read it. Implement it.
Don’t wait for your epiphany, your life-changing moment — because there is no guarantee which way that moment will take you.
Work. Career. Yes, I agree — very important.
“Hi, Tanya – I know it’s Friday evening, but the boss has a meeting with the other side Monday morning first thing, so we need to get this in shape over the weekend. Great, thank you for yet another weekend effort. You know we really appreciate it.”
Take a deep breath. Hopefully, we all can freely breathe at some point. Hit it out of the park as quickly and smoothly as you can and make time for dinner with your family. Or a park outing. Anything really. You have a life to live!
Do you think that humans have a short-term memory and once things are back to ‘normal’, they will go back to the old life? Cue ‘Ants Marching’ by Dave Matthews.
“Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die”
Not Just My Story — This Is Also the Story of Some Who Didn’t Live to Tell the Tale
Anything can happen. My family and I got this virus for no good reason; my husband was hospitalised for no good reason; my oxygen dropped so late in the day for no good reason; my five-year old kid has been through hell for no good reason.
Is there a place you want to visit? A long-lost friend you want to reach out to? A new hobby you have been putting off because of non-stop Zoom calls? Do it, please.
Yes, I know I am privileged. I know I am lucky. But you see, that’s the reason you’re hearing from me. In some ways, this is not only my story, but also the COVID-19 story of some of those who did not survive to tell it.
(Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Satyajit Sarna for his comments and edits — the hardest mark-up I have ever received!)
(Tanya Aggarwal is a mother, lawyer and avid baker. She spent 11 days in a hospital battling COVID-19. She is now back home with her family, can count up to 10 out of 30 on the breathing exercise and can’t wait to try out Rehaan’s new no-bake cookie recipe. He makes a good point — who has the time to wait for the oven? This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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