My job was to cover the coronavirus pandemic, until I became part of it

Tribune Content Agency

AUSTIN, Texas — I know how to prepare for a disaster.

My first job as a photojournalist was in Florida, where on top of weathering hurricanes, I covered them. When the coronavirus began to get close to the U.S., I thought I was ready. I had food, medicine and first-aid kits to get me through.

But nothing could have prepared me for the pandemic we’re now experiencing, including my own positive COVID-19 test.

A lot of people are blaming us, the media, saying we’re creating panic out of nothing. But that’s not true. This is a real crisis that is affecting the entire world. People tend to not believe what is really happening out there until they have someone close to them suffering the consequences. I wanted to share my story as a journalist and a human to show no one is exempt from this.

If they don’t believe the news, they should at least believe the people who are telling their own stories of suffering with this vicious illness. Even now, I’m dictating this from my hospital bed to a colleague who is helping me craft my story.

When the pandemic started to get serious in early March, my newsroom, the Austin American-Statesman, sent employees home. Reporters and editors set up new work spaces: commandeering kitchen tables, counter tops and even back porches. But I’m a photographer, and we can’t work from home. Our place is out there, taking photos and videos about what is going on in the community. The closest thing we ever get to an office is our cars.

I was washing my hands raw, wiping down every surface I touched, and never going to assignments without my hand sanitizer. I wore a mask and gloves.

On March 19, I spent a few hours along Lady Bird Lake talking to the fitness enthusiasts who had flocked to the trail after local gyms shut their doors. They ran shoulder-to-shoulder and took turns using workout equipment in the park. I stood 6 feet away when I spoke with them, and sanitized everything I could. But from there, things started to go downhill. That night I developed a fever of nearly 102 degrees, but in the morning it was gone. But the following night, the fever came again, and, suddenly, the pain in my body was unbearable, as if a truck had hit me. Twice.

I was still wanted to work, to document the unprecedented shutdown of our usually vibrant city. I spent three hours the next day, between midnight and 3 a.m. with no one around, documenting the shuttered storefronts of downtown Austin. The pain became excruciating. I knew something was wrong and wondered if I had the virus.

That weekend I began to develop a dry cough and decided to seek medical attention. A nurse at an urgent care clinic suggested I fill out an online medical questionnaire from Baylor and Scott White, which diagnosed me as having some type of viral infection. I asked to be tested for the coronavirus, but instead they prescribed me some medication to numb my throat and lungs and told me to take Tylenol and rest. They even suggested a spoonful of honey to soothe my throat.

After the weekend, I felt somewhat better and since the doctors told me it was a common virus, I returned to work wearing a mask, gloves and kept distance from any subjects I photographed.

The night of March 24, the symptoms, especially my cough, started to get worst, to the point I could barely move throughout my apartment. Even going to the bathroom was a challenge, the shortest walk left me coughing uncontrollably and unable to catch my breath. I began to lose my sense of taste and smell. I texted my boss and she told me to work from home. I stayed home working on a video, assisting other photographers by translating some interviews done in Spanish.

The next day, I was instructed via video chat to visit another clinic, where they would be able to X-ray my lungs and possibly test me for COVID-19. At the open-air clinic, a nurse said I still wasn’t meeting the criteria for a test, even though I had a history of asthma. She said they were reserving the limited supply of test kits for people over 65 with severe medical conditions.

They sent me home with orders to take Tylenol, drink plenty of fluids and gave me an emergency inhaler that I should use as I needed it.

But at home, things got worse. My coughing fits would last 10 to 15 minutes. I began to lose weight because I had no appetite. My chest was in absolute pain. Sometimes I was coughing to the point that I was crying and vomiting. I felt as if my chest, head and eyes were going to explode.

I hardly moved for the next few days. Though my fever had subsided, my respiratory symptoms were getting worse. I slept for 12 hours a night. I lost 4 pounds in 10 days.

On March 28, I tried the digital questionnaire again with Baylor Scott & White but was again denied the test. They diagnosed me with acute bacterial sinusitis, gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and suggested more rest.

Nothing helped. I took puffs of my inhaler every 10 minutes, even though it’s only intended to be used twice a day. I needed help.

I hadn’t left my apartment since March 25, but last Tuesday, I made my fifth attempt at getting tested. At an open-air clinic the nurses said my vitals were out of control. I couldn’t stop coughing. They wanted to call an ambulance to take me to the emergency room, but I couldn’t afford the added cost. I drove myself down to the emergency room of St. David’s Medical Center in South Austin.

On the way, I called my sister Laura, who lives in Florida. We were both crying. When I got to the ER, they were waiting for me.

As the doctors began to attend to me I couldn’t help but think, “This is it.” My chest was completely shut down, my body going numb from low oxygen levels. I felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. That moment was absolutely terrifying. I truly believed I was about to die.

They stabilized me quickly and said they would try to test me. But an hour later, they said I couldn’t get a test. They wanted to send me home, for the fifth time. I was exhausted, both mentality and physically, but I didn’t budge. Eventually, they agreed to test me, which requires someone shoving a long cotton swab deep into my nose to reach the back of my throat. I cried out in pain when they did it.

The next morning, the test came back positive.

I’m normally a healthy 42-year-old. I run at least 6 miles every day, take good care of myself and don’t smoke. As a photojournalist, I consider it my duty to run toward the fire, rather than away from it, but my colleagues and I have put ourselves at grave risk to document what is happening to our town.

I know medical personnel are doing everything they can to help but this crisis is serious, it’s real, and it’s going to affect all of us. The stories the doctors and nursing are telling are important too. As they urge us all to stay home, I do. Take care of yourself, take care of those at home with you, and take care of everybody else around you.

This virus is killing people of all ages, not only sick and old people. You might think you are not in risk, but you won’t know until you are in a hospital fighting for your life.


(Lola Gomez is a photojournalist with the Austin American-Statesman.)


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