My Battle with COVID-19: “A Harrowing Experience I Will Never Forget”
Azer Bestavros, BU’s associate provost for computing and data sciences, describes the toll his monthlong ordeal with the coronavirus took on his body—and his family.
Azer Bestavros, associate provost for computing and data sciences, is approaching 30 years at Boston University, and most recently he was appointed to a three-year term on the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Advisory Committee. But this spring, work had to wait, as he became one of the state’s more than 70,000 people to be infected with COVID-19. BU Today asked him to share his story.
March 2020 was shaping up to be an exciting month!
The first week of that month, my assistant and I moved from the provost suite at One Silber Way back to the more familiar Math & Computer Science Building (MCS) at 111 Cummington Mall. The renovations of the first floor in MCS were complete and I was getting used to my new office in the beautiful space that the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences (CDS) will call home until our move to the new building.
Things were really coming together. CDS launched a new website a few weeks before, a search to recruit our first cohort of CDS faculty was in full swing, and my calendar, aptly managed by my wonderful new assistant, was packed with committee meetings, interviews, and working lunches and dinners.
And, as if to put an exclamation mark on all of this, BU Today published a story about the journey that took me from my hometown of Alexandria, Egypt, to Beantown and Boston University.
I had no idea a storm was gathering in the air.
The second week of March was BU’s spring break, a time for me to catch up on all those meetings involving groups of faculty—which are hard to schedule due to teaching schedules—including a visit from German colleagues from the Honda Research Institute that we had planned months in advance. It was during that week that I first started paying close attention to this COVID-19 “thing” that had been lurking in the background of the news for a few weeks, but had suddenly become more critical. Would our German colleagues make the trip? They did, on the very last flight from Frankfurt to Boston, before Trump decided to ban travel from Europe.
Ironically, I thought to myself, scheduling this visit during spring break was no help since most BU faculty joined the public parts of our meeting by Zoom! They left on Thursday, and by Friday, the BU campus was all but deserted, now that BU had decided to switch to remote operations for students (including my BU freshman son, John, who lived in Warren) and advised them to not come back to campus after break. I had one meeting in my office that Friday morning (yes, the 13th)—the last meeting I have had in that office.
Time to take shelter and set up shop at home.
The third week of March, my office moved from that beautifully renovated CDS space to the couch in our family room. With Red Hat, where our oldest son, Mark (CAS’19), works, ordering its staff to work from home, and with Wayland Public Schools, where our daughter, Kristen, is a junior in high school, switching to online learning, the five of us had to make claims to various corners of our house to avoid interfering with each other’s video calls. And, since I rarely work from home, all I could muster for a home office was the family room.
By the end of that week, we were all getting used to this new normal. “This will be fine,” I thought to myself. The kids seem to be adjusting well, my wife, Kathryn, got a handle on Zoom for her work, and our first CDS candidate’s virtual interview went without a hitch.
Spring has sprung and so have my allergies. Or so I thought.
The fourth week of March rolled in and it was exciting. Our backyard—with its forsythia and daffodils starting to show off their colors—was calling on me to get out there. It was a cold start of spring, but that did not stop me from spending time in the yard, cleaning and pruning in expectation of the warmer days ahead. And, as with every other spring since I landed in the United States, my allergies started to flare up. The symptoms were familiar: watery eyes, itchy throat, stuffy nose, the occasional headache. It was a bit earlier than usual. But, I may as well get ahead of these allergies, so I started my regimen of antihistamine pills and nasal spray. They didn’t help as much, and by midweek, my digestive system went awry with increasingly frequent heartburns and abdominal pain. There was no fever, not even a hint of it. I assumed it must be just my allergies acting up, perhaps mixing with some other bug. “It can’t be COVID!” I thought to myself. I have been at home for almost two weeks. Nobody in my household and nobody I came in contact with at BU had it. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, I let my assistant know I wasn’t feeling great, and asked her to lighten up my calendar “just in case.”
The weather the next day, Thursday, March 26, was particularly warm, and with my calendar cleared up for the afternoon, I decided to do some more cleanup work outdoors. My annoying allergy symptoms aside, coming in from that yard work felt great. I took a nice hot shower and watched an episode of BBC’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—a favorite of Kristen’s—before heading to bed.
That gathering storm is not going to just pass us by, unfortunately…
I just could not fall asleep that night, which is very unusual for me! Still, with no fever, my allergy symptoms seemed to be the worst they have been all week long, now with joint and body aches, which I attributed to my yard work earlier that day.
By the time I rolled out from bed on Friday morning to attend the virtual talk of a computer science faculty candidate, whom I was interviewing later in the day, I knew that something other than my allergies was brewing. That morning, I exchanged emails with a dear colleague who I learned had come down with COVID-19 a week or so earlier, and to whom I had written with best wishes and my offer to help in any way I could. When I told her of my own symptoms, she replied within minutes, with some ALL CAPS, that I should be very careful, to rest, and to monitor my blood oxygen with an oximeter. Her emails were sobering. I managed to get online and have Kathryn pick an oximeter up for me from a nearby Walgreens.
By the middle of the day, I started coughing, which was more of an annoyance than anything, but also I developed a low-grade fever at just above 99 degrees. “If I got it, then everybody in our family will end up getting it too,” I told myself. But still, starting that morning, and perhaps just to feel that I was doing something about it, I began trying to keep my distance from Kathryn and the kids. It was an exercise in futility.
Even though I had no idea how I would have gotten it, the thought that I may have been infected with the coronavirus was now real. I called my doctor and I was told that there is not much to do, other than resting, drinking lots of fluids, monitoring the fever, and taking Tylenol to treat the symptoms. Later that afternoon, I decided that I was in good enough shape to have that Zoom interview with the computer science candidate. That was not a good decision. By the end of that 45-minute call, which ended around 5 pm, I felt very sick and headed straight to bed, now resigned to the fact that somehow I must have gotten that darn virus. That said, I was still clinging to the possibility, or perhaps wishful thinking, that it could be just a bad case of the flu (even though the last time I had the flu was 21 years ago!). Whatever it was, now I have to battle it.
And, battle I did…
Sleepless again overnight, Saturday was a tough day that I spent mostly between my bed and a recliner in our family room. It was a low-grade fever, all right, but I could not have felt more miserable. In addition to the headache, heartburn, and the now more persistent coughing, every inch of my body was hurting. There was no position I could find that would ease the pain, especially lower back pain. Adding insult to injury, that morning I realized that I’d developed one more symptom. I lost all sense of taste. It was unreal. Whatever hope I had that this could be anything but COVID-19 was gone. Nothing was working, and yet the only thing I could do is take the maximum dose of Tylenol every four hours, measure my temperature, and check my blood oxygen to make sure it did not go below 90 percent.
There was no position I could find that would ease the pain.
Saturday night was déjà vu all over again, except my fever was inching up ever so slowly—now just over 100 degrees when I was in between Tylenol doses. But then, a new wrinkle: Sunday morning, Mark developed a fever to go along with intermittent headache and stomach pains he had been complaining about for a few days. Whatever social distancing we were doing at home was not working. After calling around, we were told that one of the COVID-19 test centers set up by the state was not too far away from us, in Framingham. So, later in the day, we drove to the test center and waited about 45 minutes after filling out all sorts of paperwork. Both Mark and I got tested for the flu and strep. These tests were negative. Mark did not qualify for getting the COVID-19 test (given the rationing rules in place). But I did qualify and was tested and told to go home and wait for the results, which would not be “for another few days.”
Sunday night was not as bad as the two nights before. I managed to sleep and my fever did not go above 100 degrees. I coughed less and my blood oxygen was fine. I woke up on Monday feeling better than I had in days. I thought to myself, “If this thing is just a matter of three days of flu-like symptoms, then maybe I managed to dodge the bullet!”
Unlucky to have gotten it, but hopeful for a quick recovery.
So, on Tuesday early afternoon when I got my positive COVID-19 diagnosis over the phone from the healthcare professional who stuck the swab up my nose a couple of days before, my mindset was already beyond that. The fact that the test was positive merely meant I am now a statistic in the commonwealth’s database (the eighth resident of Wayland to test positive for COVID-19 at the time). But since I was feeling better, I decided to just keep up with work and make everybody around me feel better. The symptoms were all there, but somehow manageable, or perhaps I got used to them. The fever was low and I was able to sneak in a meeting here and an interview there, to the chagrin of my wonderful staff and colleagues, who proactively, and at times without telling me, just canceled and postponed meetings left and right—except for CDS faculty interviews, which I insisted should not be derailed.
After the positive diagnosis, calls followed from representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and later on from the Occupational Health Center at BU, and I was keen on telling them that I was doing well and that I would self-quarantine. I answered all their contact-tracing questions, which must not have been too informative given how little contact I had beyond family members since “Friday the 13th,” which was almost two weeks before my symptoms showed up. That’s how Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of that week went by.
You can run, but you can’t hide.
Thursday night, things took a new, and real, turn for the worse, and it was quick. My coughing got worse and my breathing felt shallower, with noticeable wheezing reminiscent of what I experience during asthma attacks when my seasonal allergies flare up. My blood oxygen struggled to stay above 90 percent and my fever kept spiking well above 100 degrees whenever I was due for my next dose of Tylenol. That night, I started to be worried. This virus is so seductive, giving me the impression that I had the upper hand, only to come back with a vengeance. By Friday morning, I was as weak as I had been since my symptoms started. That morning, John and Kristen also complained of a sore throats and upper respiratory symptoms. The real fight was just starting!
Me, my body, and COVID-19…
Friday, April 3, was bad. I don’t recall much of that day other than feeling so weak, going from one dose of Tylenol to the next. The optimistic, fighting spirit I had earlier that week was all but gone. The virus was getting the upper hand. My family was very worried. Without me knowing it, in the early evening, they called my primary care physician who said that it may be a good idea to check me into a hospital. I refused. I don’t like hospitals. Two years ago, after a routine procedure, I almost died from sepsis as a result of an unrelated infection that I caught while recovering from that procedure. Besides, what good would going to the hospital do? More Tylenol? It’s not like they have figured out a treatment. While not great, my breathing was OK and my blood oxygen remained around 90 percent. In a back-and-forth with all of them, I pleaded to just let me spend that night at home, and if things were still bad on Saturday, I promised to do as they wished.
What I experienced Friday night into Saturday morning could only be described as an out-of-body experience befitting of an episode from The Twilight Zone. Tossing and turning in bed, waking up every hour or so to check my blood oxygen, and if necessary, bringing it up to 90 percent by taking deeper breaths, it felt that I was arguing with, begging, and cheerleading my own body to keep fighting and to stand up to this virus. Maybe it was the fear of hospitalization, maybe it was the sadness that I felt seeing my wife and kids so emotionally distraught over seeing me losing it to COVID-19, maybe it was some fever-induced hallucinations. Whatever it was, this was a harrowing experience I will never forget. That night was the night that I, my body, and COVID-19 had to hash it out.
It is fair to say that I just lost track of time—I was just content with every day being slightly better than the one before.
Saturday was an improvement, even if not by much—but good enough to ease my family’s concerns about the need to check me into a hospital. Same for Sunday, except that Kathryn’s symptoms, which had started a few days earlier, took a turn for the worse with moderate fever and increased coughing. Now, both of us were on a Tylenol regimen every four hours. “OK, Google, remind me to take my Tylenol pills in four hours.”
It takes a village…and a lot of patience.
Week three of my bout with COVID-19 was upon us. This was a special week. Passover was coming, and Western Easter was just around the corner, with John’s 19th birthday on Easter Monday. I was determined to start my recovery. Unlike the week before, though, I was now content with small and steady improvements. Patience became the name of the game, and I needed a lot of that.
Around this time, the news of my coming down with COVID-19 began to reach many of my colleagues at BU and my social network. Emails and text messages from the president and provost all the way to colleagues, friends, and students would just not stop. They were all rooting for me. I get it; it takes a village to beat COVID-19!
My fever and coughing, along with Kathryn’s, persisted for that entire week (along with our “oxygen watch” rites) with Tuesday night being the worst. It is fair to say that I just lost track of time—I was just content with every day being slightly better than the one before, and incredibly thankful that the kids did not develop any more symptoms. That said, as the days came and went, recovery before Western Easter was not in the cards. But then, maybe I was looking at the wrong calendar. Eastern (Coptic Orthodox) Easter was coming the following week.
Unbind him and let him go…
By Friday, things started to look up. Our fevers remained, but only spiked moderately at night; our coughing was less and our blood oxygen did not seem to need monitoring as much.
Saturday, April 11, was the first day when I felt my sense of taste returning. That Saturday happens to be a special day in the Coptic calendar; it is the day Lazarus (Azer in Arabic) was called out back to the land of the living—“unbind him and let him go” was all I can think about that day. Somehow, that is the day that I believe that my body managed to get the upper hand over COVID-19. Indeed, from that day on, it was clear that my fever was well under control, prompting me to stop my Tylenol regimen and to tell my assistant to get everybody back on my calendar. It was so empowering to be able to do so. I have had it with this virus; I wrestled it and I came out on top.
Healthy, thankful, and grateful, our Coptic Orthodox Easter celebration on April 19 was special (even if we were watching our local church services online with no congregation present). Victory day it was.
Final note: This stream of consciousness was completed on Monday, April 27, which was day 33 from when those first symptoms I had mistaken for seasonal allergies started. It is the day that BU’s Occupational Health Center declared me fit to resume my normal work duties, as more than a week had passed since I had any symptoms. Whatever they say, one thing I know: I could not have beaten COVID-19 if I had let it stop me from working or thinking about the future and what lies ahead.