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The recovered: How it feels to be alive on the other side of the pandemic

Jill Baren, 59, an emergency physician, with her dog, Rosie, on Saturday in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Baren tested positive for the coronavirus on March 18 and returned to work April 10. (Michelle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

The first nine days were bearable. Mild cough, scratchy throat, lower-back pain. Jill Baren, a triathlete, ascribed the last symptom to overdoing exercise.

The next eight days? Horrific. Severe fevers, chest pain, cramps, fatigue, diarrhea and dehydration that sent her to the hospital.

“The way people looked at me in the ER, the look in people’s eyes, I’ve never seen that,” says Baren, 59, of Bryn Mawr, Pa. “They looked at me like I could die.”

These people knew her well. Baren, president of the American Board of Emergency Medicine, was lying in the Philadelphia emergency room where she works as a physician.

Last week, fully recovered, Baren returned to caring for patients. “It feels empowering to have been through this,” she says. “I’m in a position to help in a way that other people are not. I don’t have to live in dire fear if a droplet goes through my protective clothing. I can reassure people, tell my story.”

Baren is among the recovered, the almost 44,000 people in the United States who have survived covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Because of faulty results and a lack of testing, their true number is believed to be substantially greater and will continue to mount for months to come. As of Tuesday, more than 600,000 Americans had contracted the virus.

How does it feel to be among them? To be alive on the other side of the pandemic, the crush of anxiety?

Lucky.

Lucky and weepy and invincible and relieved and tired and motivated and perplexed and altered.

There is so much information and, then again, not enough as to how to proceed. People who have recovered, even those who are still weak, share an urgency to help, inform and donate, especially plasma, anything for research. Some people report feeling like superheroes, virus Avengers. Others sense being stigmatized, that the healthy will avoid them for fear of risking infection.

March was a fevered blur for Carrie Smith, 44, a nurse in St. Louis assigned to a hospital’s cardiac floor. On her worst days recovering at home, she slept 20 hours a day. Half of the respiratory therapists at her hospital went out sick, and a fifth of the nursing staff.

“I was so scared,” she says. “I had written out my living will. I had prepared as if I was going to die.” This is what solace sounds like on the other end of the tunnel. “It’s been a relief. Everyone in my house got it, and nobody died from it.”

Madeline Long, 56, of Bowie, Md., is a breast cancer survivor and CEO of a company that produces devices for digital mammography. “I was terrified. For three days, I didn’t think I would wake up. I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was the new normal,” she says. “It was worse than anything I went through with breast cancer.” Long spent five days in the hospital.

How does she feel now? Silence, then sobbing. “I guess I’ve answered your question.”

The pandemic, which arrived so fast and with such force, left confusion for those who now view the virus in their rearview mirror.

Guidelines for recovery vary. It can be a challenge to obtain clearance status from local government, to even get through to an overtaxed health department. How cleared is cleared? Do you tell everyone or keep it to yourself? What is the protocol for health-care workers who have had the virus, especially with patients who haven’t?

“Now, I can go help people. I can work on the front line,” Smith says. “Do they want me to tell people, to reassure them? If I was a patient, and my nurse had it, I would want to know that she was really sick and now she is okay.”

Diana Berrent, 45, a photographer in Port Washington, N.Y., has become a public face of the recovered, after fighting to get tested. Last month, she launched the Facebook group Survivor Corps, which has attracted more than 31,000 members. Having tested positive for immunity, Berrent says, “I would be able to use that superpower at the end of this to go help others.”

Berrent took to television and created a video diary chronicled in the New York Post. “If I’m going to be the canary in the coal mine, I’m going to be the loudest canary in the coal mine,” she says. “I feel like I have a sense of purpose.”

“We can hold the hands of the dying. We can donate plasma,” says Berrent, who has participated in two studies and volunteered to participate in four more. “There’s no better therapy for survivors than using the superpowers your bodies created to save lives.”

Berrent acknowledges: “I wouldn’t say I am definitely immune. We shouldn’t be assuming anything. I still haven’t gone to the supermarket. I’m still cautious. I’m taking my time. People can’t be careful enough.” Experts say there is no scientific assurance that someone recovered from the coronavirus is completely immune — or certainty as to how long any immunity might last.

Coronavirus immunity remains big question mark for a country eager to reopen

Cases vary radically. On Tuesday, President Trump met with people who have recovered; their cases ranged from life-threatening to slight, the duration from a few days to a month. People have relapsed with symptoms, and South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports citizens testing positive after having beaten the disease. The U.S. CDC and many state health departments suggest that the recovered wait 72 hours after fever and respiratory issues end before returning to work. That may be too short and too vague, given relapses and the infected who never exhibit major symptoms, Berrent argues: “It’s going to be the death of us.”

But gratitude is a constant. People living alone are grateful they didn’t infect family, didn’t have to care for toddlers, and were free to sleep and sweat in bed for hours. Parents of young children assume their children were infected yet are grateful that they appear asymptomatic. Young adults are grateful their cases are milder. Those with severe cases are especially grateful that they have joined the recovered.

Will Stanley, 30, is an Episcopal priest who started serving a large church in Richmond as vicar on Ash Wednesday. Three weeks later, he had to inform the entire congregation of 4,700 that he had contracted the coronavirus after participating in a Louisville leadership conference, a “super-spreader event” whose attendees later became ill in significant numbers.

Stanley’s case was mild. His worries were far from it.

“I have a lot of contact with people over the age of 60. The notion that I was getting any one of them sick was really weighty,” he says. Still, “I do feel fortunate. It gives me a way of solidarity for people who aren’t doing well.”

“I’m a bit of a wreck. For most of my life, I’ve been head over heart, more intellectual. Now, the slightest thing will make me cry. Every emotion is amplified,” says David Lat, 44, who lives in Manhattan but is convalescing with his husband and toddler at his parents’ home in Saddle River, N.J. Lat, the founder of the legal news website Above the Law, who wrote about his experience for The Washington Post opinion section, spent 17 days in a hospital, six of them on a ventilator.

He’s raw. His voice scarred, his lungs weakened. Exhaustion is constant.

“I feel like I was given a pass,” Lat says. Cliches, he realizes, even apologizes, tumble yet resonate. “This is my second life. This is not the end of the story. It’s really the beginning.” He has donated plasma for research, been interviewed by documentarians. While at NYU Langone Health, he shared his medical condition on social media, his Twitter followers nearly tripling, surpassing 95,000.

Atlanta pediatric emergency physician Stephanie Cohen, 45, feels “this sense of immunity,” not only from the virus but from anxiety. “I don’t have to worry.” Cohen, a mother of five, wants to donate plasma, participate in studies and deliver food to the elderly in Albany, Ga., where 30 people have died from the coronavirus.

“I can put it to best use in the hospital,” she says. “If somebody with the virus needs to be intubated, I can do this.”

One of Cohen’s colleagues told her, “You’ve taken fear and anxiety, and turned it into truth and reality.”

The long, halting, confusing road to recovery from coronavirus

Yet anxiety persists. “I feel lucky. I’m young and had a mild case. But I feel like a pariah. Our neighbors run away from me,” says Rebecca, 21, a college junior from Elkins Park, Pa., who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. She fears reprisals for her mother, who has yet to get sick and works in health care.

Philip Kruse, 64, of Seattle, a former employee for a residential tree service who’s now on disability, had a mild case — half his family got the virus — but kept it “totally undercover that I was sick because I live in public housing, and you know what a rumor mill that can be.”

Still, there is a gift in being among the first people to get it — and to get over it. Julia Marsh Rabin, 51, an architect in Beverly, Mass., says: “I’m so glad it’s behind me. If I was other people, I’d be scared. I got it so early, I didn’t know to be scared. I didn’t have time to be scared.”

Samantha Brownell, also 51, of South Orange, N.J., tested negative, but two physicians are confident she had covid-19. She was sick for 12 days. “I’ve never experienced such body pains. I could barely walk from the bed to the toilet,” she says.

“I’m so frustrated. I’m in a state of shock,” Brownell says of the negative test. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Kind of makes you feel like you’re going crazy.” She plans to get retested, and proceed as though she had the virus.

Richard Phillips, 49, is confounded by the lack of information about what happens after having the coronavirus. How is he supposed to proceed? How can he help?

“It’s kind of maddening. Some people could still be shedding the virus. I’m trying in vain to find a study, people doing plasma treatments,” says Phillips, a business and nonprofit consultant in Philadelphia. “We have this moment. I can’t believe I didn’t get a call from someone at the University of Pennsylvania saying, ‘Come down here. We’re going to take as much blood out of your body as possible.’ ”

Roles and responsibilities, post-virus, are still being defined. Kruse worries about his economic situation. He’s donated plasma five times, getting paid $200 a visit.

Long is concerned that black Americans have been infected and are dying at much higher rates than the general population. “There’s such large numbers in our communities,” says Long, who offered to care for the 4-year-old son of a friend of a friend in Washington who appears to have the virus. “Where else is that child going to go? Everyone is fearful that the child has been exposed to his mom,” she says. “What happens to the single mom who gets sick? What happens to her children?”

Lat sees himself as “a witness, a communicator, a connector. Everyone needs to find their own special niche, their talent, and apply that to this.” On March 30, Berrent became the first volunteer to donate plasma at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“I am free of the virus, positive for the antibodies, AND I am a universal donor!!!” she shared with Survivors Corps a few days ago. “Someone, sew me a cape!”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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