Before guest writer Mary Mosteller got Omicron, she and her flatmates had the same attitude that so many of us have: “No point in isolating, we’re all going to get it.” Plus, it’s ‘mild’. Then she did get it – and had to go to hospital. It was while waiting outside the emergency room for eight hours that Mary saw just how strained our healthcare system is – and she wants her experience to be a warning for all of us.
It escalated quickly after the shortness of breath began. My fever hit 39 despite taking Panadol. There was an ever-tightening knot in my sternum. My ribs felt as if they were caving in, collapsing into my lungs. And then, the heart palpitations started. My flatmate kneeled at my bedside, index finger counting my erratic pulse. She called Healthline once the feeling left my arms and legs from the knees down. Healthline called me an ambulance, but the queue was so long that my flatmate decided she would drive me. We arrived at Auckland Hospital 12 minutes later.
I am 31 years old, I am healthy – “mostly” vegan, exercise daily, no prior conditions; vaccinated and boosted. This was not supposed to happen. Omicron was supposed to be the easy one, the one where I would barely feel any symptoms and it would pass in a few days. I had not anticipated spending the night in a hospital hooked up to an IV.
I was left in a carpark-turned-triage area for eight hours with two dozen others in the same position as me – in agony, but well enough to wait.
What was more terrifying than the pain though, was watching firsthand the pressure the medical system is under during this outbreak. When I arrived I expected to be immediately wheeled inside to a hospital bed. Instead, I was left in a carpark-turned-triage area for eight hours with two dozen others in the same position as me – in agony, but well enough to wait.
I sat in a wheelchair, hunched over with my face in my hands. My flatmate rubbed my back as I whispered: ‘Please help me, please help me.’ I took more Panadol. After the first hour, the pain slowly decreased. A security guard walked around, passing out blankets as night fell. More people arrived and were directed to wait. I watched them have the same expression I had on my face when they also weren’t immediately given help: confusion, pain, incredulity. Then, over time, it sinks in: you will be waiting for hours. If you aren’t an immediate emergency, you can’t come in.
As the hours passed I came to terms with the wait. I took solace in knowing that if there was an emergency they would take me in. In an attempt to distract myself, I turned my attention to the others around me. I witnessed a fraction of what doctors and nurses see every day. The girl sitting across from me was on her knees, her face flat on the seat in front of her, wailing in pain. She was young too, perhaps younger than me. Every so often she would use her inhaler, and then cry harder. At one point she was begging them to let her in. We felt her audible pain – our collective coughing echoed around us, bouncing off the concrete like a symphony of support.
The nurse looked him straight in the eyes and sternly said, “There are no beds. There are no rooms. Half the doctors and nurses have caught Covid. This is what happens when the system fails.”
It is easy to wonder why we can’t all be taken care of, but the system was not built for an outbreak. It was built to care for the usual influx of patients. I saw these people too. A man was wheeled in with two broken arms. A teenage boy carried in a young girl. She was thrashing in his arms, crying: ‘Don’t take me, I don’t want to be here.’ She had just overdosed. These cases, along with the elderly. were taken in immediately. Thankfully, there was room for the most needy.
Curled up on a bench covered by thin hospital blankets, I wondered how the health workers handle this level of distress and trauma every single day. The truth is, I have no idea how they cope. I watched a fellow patient harass the nurse who was intermittently taking our vitals. The nurse looked him straight in the eyes and sternly said, “There are no beds. There are no rooms. Half the doctors and nurses have caught Covid. This is what happens when the system fails.” His candor hit me clear in the chest. They aren’t coping. There isn’t space or support to cope. They are simply doing their best.
When they finally called my name, I had started vomiting. They put me in a bed and hooked me up to an IV. I was given anti-nausea medication, saline for hydration, and more painkillers. They were thorough – they did an EKG, a chest x-ray, and blood tests. Thankfully, my diagnosis was clear: my case of Covid was unusual for someone my age who was boosted, but there were no major complications. They kept me there until the next day when my fever broke and my sodium levels had increased. “If it gets worse, come back,” they said kindly, despite their increasing numbers. Now, nearly three weeks later, I am still recovering. I get fatigued after a walk up a long staircase. I still feel the dry cough tickling the tops of my lungs. The effects have lingered.
This experience has changed how seriously I take Omicron. When the outbreak first started, my flat decided we would not isolate from each other if one of us got it.
This experience has changed how seriously I take Omicron. When the outbreak first started, my flat decided we would not isolate from each other if one of us got it. ‘May as well get it over with,’ we said. ‘We’re all going to get it.’ This seems to be a collective attitude now, especially for the young and boosted. It astounds me that a few months ago we were stuck in our homes, terrified of Delta, and adamant about stopping the spread. Now many of us are cavalier about Covid. This shift in perspective illuminates how adaptable the human psyche is and how easily we move on. The rhetoric around Omicron is different than it was around other strains, but that has meant some people take it less seriously. If I had known how bad it could get, would I have tried harder to avoid it? But that stirs up another internal debate: would I have skipped out on my best friend’s engagement party where I got Omicron, or avoided seeing my loved ones? Perhaps the loneliness of lockdown desensitized me to Covid, but is a trip to the hospital preferable to months alone in my home?
The rest of the world has been navigating these waters for years: how do we live with Covid-19 among us? While watching friends overseas, it was easy to make judgments about their choices while stuck in lockdown. On social media I watched them planning vacations, hosting hen do’s, and going to concerts. The judgment came easily because I had not yet experienced the stress of negotiating how to protect myself and others against wanting to see the people and do the things I love. During lockdown we knew the rules, but sometimes now it feels like a free-for-all. With more autonomy, comes trickier decisions.
So how do we live with Covid-19 among us? Where is the line? Do I attend that fifty-person birthday party? Is it okay to go to the gym? The truth is, I don’t know the answers. Although these questions seem individual, they do have nationwide consequences, on the immune-compromised, on at-risk populations, and on our healthcare workers. I am still working out what this looks like for me now. My mentality has changed, but I don’t know how to translate that into action. Would I have skipped the engagement party had I known the consequences on myself? Probably not. But I wish I had weighed those consequences a little more thoughtfully.