Medical Examiner

Coronavirus Diaries: I Had the Coronavirus. This Was the Worst Part.

A mask that says "coronavirus diaries" overlaid on an image of an empty hospital room.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Morena Colombi of Truccazzano, Italy, near Milan has been transcribed, translated, and edited for clarity from a conversation with Greta Privitera.

On Feb. 14, the first flu symptoms came. I remember it pretty well because it was Valentine’s Day, and now for fun I say that I got a “crown” from my valentine [in Italian, corona means crown]. I felt weak, I had a cough, and I was particularly tired. On Feb. 16, the symptoms got worse. I took my temperature, and it was 101.3 Fahrenheit. I made an appointment with the doctor—I wanted to know what was going on. I went to his clinic, and after the visit he gave me the usual prescription for the flu. His only advice: “Stay home.” The first outbreak of COVID-19 had not yet exploded. Doctors were on alert, but nothing compared to now.

On Feb. 21, my 59th birthday, I had chills, and, instead of getting better, the cough only got worse. It was a kind of cough that I didn’t like. I’ve had pneumonia three times in the past, and I could tell from the sound that it wasn’t good. That was the same day the newspapers reported patient No. 1 was hospitalized, in Codogno, near Lodi. It was the beginning of the infection—or, better, the beginning of the chaos. I started to worry. I tried to call the two emergency numbers dedicated to COVID-19. I called and called back, but it was always busy, the lines were blocked, stormed by panicked people. I managed to connect with them a day and a half later. They told me they would call me back from the ministry of health, but they never did.

I called Sacco, Milan’s hospital specialized in infectious diseases, but they were full and had no more rooms for isolation. They told me to go to the hospital in Treviglio, smaller and closer to my home. I live alone, my son is far away, and I didn’t know whom to ask for help. [The phone number] 112, our 911, was not responding. I felt really sick at this point, and I decided to go to the emergency room by car. There they scolded me, I shouldn’t have gone, but I didn’t know what to do. I knew it was banned, but I had no other choice.

I told them about my symptoms, and I also told them I had contact with people from Asia (even though in hindsight I realize I could have gotten it anywhere). A lightbulb went on over their heads, and I was hospitalized. They took some X-rays, and they confirmed that I had pneumonia. There were no rooms in isolation, though, so they put me on a stretcher in an unused office that lacked even a bathroom. Every two hours they would come to check my vitals. They gave me the swab, and the results came back a day later: positive for COVID-19.

When they told me about it, I wasn’t afraid for myself. I had figured I had it, and I was actually doing better—it was like having a bad flu. I was afraid for everyone else. I thought back to whom I had seen, whom I had come in contact with, and I hoped with all of myself that no one had contracted the virus. I had to call my friends, family, and co-workers and explain the whole story.

They transferred me to the infectious diseases department at a bigger hospital in Bergamo. There, they were more prepared to handle this emergency. I was in isolation; no one could visit me. Since there is no cure, they could only give me Tylenol. They took another X-ray and saw that my condition had improved. They let me out five days ago and put me in what is called “voluntary isolation”: For two weeks I must stay at home, I can’t come in contact with anyone—that’s why my groceries will have to be delivered and left at the door. I’m better, much better. I still have a little cough, but I’m healed. I speak with my son and my sister via Skype. I’m very bored, but that’s how it goes for now.

The thing that hurt me most about this whole ordeal was the people from my city, who treated me as if I had the plague. I live in Truccazzano, a town of 5,800 inhabitants, 15 kilometers east of Milan. They accused me of going to the doctor and risking infecting everyone, but who could have imagined such a thing three weeks ago? They made up a lot of lies, even that men in hazmat suits came to my house to sanitize it. It’s crazy. I needed their support—instead I was humiliated.

More than the virus, it’s the ignorance that frightens me. I feel sad about the gossip. I’m sad seeing people empty food from supermarkets. Not because I don’t understand panic—I understand it very well—but because nobody thinks of the others. If you take everything, it may be that the one after you, who may need it more, would find nothing. It’s a complicated time; we need rationality. Not for us, but for the most vulnerable, the first victims of COVID-19.