A COVID-19 Survivor Has a Warning for Other Men

David, a medical student, partied in Florida in early March. Then when he got home to Indiana, symptoms began.

A twentysomething man, shown from chin to chest
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail spoke to David Vega, a 27-year-old man who went to a few parties in Florida in early March—and came home with the coronavirus. He recovered, but he says he should have known better—he’s a medical student. In the interview, David describes his two-week ordeal with COVID-19 and urges other young men to heed the public health warnings. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: Was there anything that you did in hindsight that you wish you didn’t? Like anything that you would now characterize as irresponsible?

David Vega: Absolutely. I went to a few different parties. In South Florida there are a lot of parties. One of my friends had a baby shower, but Latin baby showers are just more excuses to throw a big party. And then there’s beach parties that my friends threw, going to the mall and the airport. I wasn’t taking any precautions or anything like that. Saw a few people with masks, but wasn’t washing my hands as diligently as I should have, wasn’t avoiding people or social distancing. This is before things got more serious, how it is today. But looking back, I wish I took those outbreaks a little bit more seriously and started seeing how big of a pandemic it could really evolve into.

So what was it like to experience it?

I remember being really, really scared, not knowing what was going on. I started feeling, probably day one, fever, chills, fatigue, muscle and body aches, complete loss of appetite, no desire to do anything, just staying in my bed most of the day. I remember thinking it was probably just the flu. I actually had a doctor’s appointment the second day for something totally unrelated, but because I had a 101-degree fever, and because I had traveled outside of the country in the last 28 days, they decided to do a flu test on me. Because I came back negative, it reflexed to COVID-19. I was actually very lucky to be one of the people that was actually tested for it because I know testing was not as widely available as it is now. We’re still seeing problems in that sector as well.

But I continued to experience fever, fatigue, chills, for about a week and a half. For me that was very, very scary. I’ve had the flu in the past, and usually fever, chills, fatigue will last about a day or two, maybe three days. But reaching day eight to nine, you start getting worried about all the other things that are going wrong in your body. I even remember starting to get on the mend and attempting a home workout and I got winded pretty quickly, so I knew I had to take it easy and let this thing ride before I went back to my routine.

For a while I was thinking, I’m young. It’s not going to really hurt me. Even if I did catch it, I’ll probably get over it real quick. There was a little bit of arrogance. I want to know if you relate to that and whether you see that trending with some of your other male friends.

Absolutely. I think it’s very easy to fall into that trap. I watch what I eat, I exercise most days of the week, and I don’t have any other health conditions, so generally pretty healthy. I thought, in the off chance that I were to get it, it might be like a cold or maybe like a flu, I’ll be out for a few days. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to last two weeks, which is the period of time that I was experiencing symptoms.

Can you tell me why you felt that way?

I had never really been scared about my health in my 27 years of living. You know, growing up, in school, you hear about these pandemics, the Spanish flu and other things like that, and I think it’s hard to really conceptualize that it’s real until either you experience it yourself or a loved one or someone that you know experiences it. And for me, unfortunately, it had to be me experiencing it, to have a take-home message from all of that.

So were you that person at the very beginning thinking that it was a little crazy to do all those extra precautions?

I remember when I saw the NBA was canceled, that was kind of a shocking moment. I was like, Wow, just because one player got it, everything is now canceled. And I think it really took a week for everything to start registering, for me to see, like, Wow, this is continuing to spread. It’s not getting any better. If anything, it’s getting way worse.

Especially coming from Africa, where I spent two months in hospitals, and doctors would have to make decisions every day about who should get that ICU bed because we only have five, and we have three patients or 10 patients that need it, but we’re only allowed to transfer one. So many resource-allocation decisions. And it’s hard to see patients die because they can’t get the proper care. That’s something that I never thought would happen here in the United States, a country with so much wealth and so much medical expertise. And to see us heading in that direction, to see us not have enough ventilators in the ICU—that doctors now have to have conversations with their superiors about who should get that ventilator, who should get the ICU bed, is insane. Every single day that goes by, you hear more and more stories about physicians and other health care professionals. I think it makes it more and more real for all of us.

If you did take it more seriously, how would it have played out differently?

If I took it more seriously, I probably wouldn’t have been infected with the virus. As a medical student, finishing my studies and going to residency, it still affects me. Our school is actually letting us graduate early to go out and help with the pandemic. But I think having firsthand experience makes me really understand the seriousness of this virus and makes me want to advocate for young people and for young men all across the country that this is a serious thing. It knocked me out for two weeks, and I was lucky to not be one of the young people that ended up in the hospital—because we’re seeing more and more young people going to the hospital, going to the ICU, being put on ventilators, and even dying.

I’m 30 now, but I still feel like I’m 20 at heart, and I still feel like I can do crazy things and ride my skateboard and jump off stairs and do whatever. And I feel confident that I’ll recover, that my body will be able to keep up and be as strong as it was yesterday. What do you think you needed to hear so that you could believe you could get the coronavirus too? Or do you think that you needed to experience it firsthand in order to understand that you can get sick too?

Definitely wish I would have heard rather than experienced it myself. [Laughs] But I think once it hits someone that you personally know, it hits home. And hearing about the terrible conditions in the hospitals that residents and doctors are having to work in, and how they’re being overworked and not having the appropriate masks or not having enough masks, and now doctors are dying and nurses are dying because of this virus—I think seeing how much panic and frenzy it’s causing for a field I’m about to jump in in the next month or two, and knowing it’s going to affect me, would have made me second-guess that social gathering I went to or rethink going to that party. I think if I just would’ve seen the repercussions that we now are seeing and living day by day, I would have not done what I did, and I would have taken all these steps way more seriously.

We can’t be frivolous about our lives and the lives of others. This is where we really gotta support each other.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “A COVID-19 Survivor Warns Other Men.”