Hari Khanal, board chairman of the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts, is a former Bhutanese refugee currently working as a community health worker at a local health center in Springfield, Massachusetts.
When the hospital informed us that my wife had tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), I believed that my entire family must have been infected by this fatal virus. All of us in the family were experiencing some kinds of symptoms including headache, cough, and fever. COVID-19 has already killed over 214,000 people all around the world and millions others infected by this continue their struggle for life. Luckily, my family is able to win the battle with COVID-19 after four weeks of fierce struggle and determination.
My wife, Yashoda, works at a local hospital and I work at a Community Health Center. It was Friday evening on March 27 when I started experiencing sore throat and cough as soon as I got home from work. I stayed home with my children the following two days, as both Saturday and Sunday are my regular holidays. Yashoda worked on both of these days.
I experienced pain and aches everywhere below my waist with a fever of 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit. My fears increased when my wife came back from her job on Sunday (March 29th) and shared with me that she also started experiencing similar symptoms to mine. On the same night, my 8-year-old daughter had a very high fever. On Monday morning, my 14-year-old son reported that he had pain and aches around his eyes and on his chest. I felt like the hill above my house had collapsed and all of us were buried under the debris. I was more disturbed mentally than physically.
On Monday morning at around 10 AM, I contacted the pediatrician and requested them to prescribe fever and pain relief medication for my children. That same day, I picked up the medicine from the pharmacy and gave it to my children as prescribed by the pediatrician, which helped to control their fever and pain. We continued to give the medicine as needed until April 1.
Although all the symptoms of both my children disappeared, my wife and I were still suffering from body aches and fever. On Tuesday afternoon (March 31st), we called our physicians at our Primary Care Doctor’s office and consulted with them over the phone about our symptoms. After listening to us, the physician suggested that we self-quarantine at home and strictly follow the guidelines relating to COVID-19.
The physician even suggested that my wife ask if the hospital where she works would run a test on her. She contacted the Employee Health Services (EHS) at the hospital on the same day and got tested. The next day on April 7, someone from the EHS called and informed her that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Although we were somewhat mentally prepared for this news, the news made us feel that death was standing at our doorstep.
The hospital advised us to stay home, continue self-quarantine and follow the guidelines. Neither of us was in the mood to go to the hospital, even if the situation got serious, since we knew that no one would be allowed to accompany us and provide support once either of us were admitted. But the reality was different. I immediately contacted both physicians to inform them about my wife's positive test result. The pediatrician told me that they do not have enough kits available in the area to run tests on everyone in the family and suggested that we continue to self-quarantine, assuming that all of us are infected. We were asked to regularly update the physicians about our symptoms.
During this transitional period, I had the same dream almost every night. I dreamed that all my family members had fallen into deep waters on a dark night. I loved my children more than myself and even in my dreams, I was yearning for them every night. While I was in self-quarantine, I practised some self-counseling and tried to console myself. I questioned myself many times: Why am I worried about only those who lost the battle and forgetting the millions struggling to survive and those who have fully recovered and returned home to lead a normal life? Why am I so worried that I may also die, ignoring the number of people who lost their lives and forgetting the remaining 95% of the population fighting against this pandemic and recovering from it? Does this worry save me from dying?” My answer to all these questions was “no.” I realized that they might help me to die instead. In the end, I was able to convince myself and understand the reality.
I was encouraged not to be pessimistic nor give up hope since millions of people who had been severely sick and admitted to hospital had returned to their normal lives after getting treatment. With the same encouragement and support from my wife Yashoda, I was able to establish an environment in my family that would help us fight against the disease, thereby strengthening the spirits of my family members and overcoming our fear and anxiety.
We understood the fact that despite ongoing research, no medicines or vaccines were found so far that would help to prevent or control COVID-19. Therefore, we must fully follow the basic guidelines of public health as the only way to escape from this pandemic. The examples and experiences from many other cities around the world where people were infected with the disease has taught us to follow the same guidelines. To get back to a normal life completely free from the virus, we strictly followed the social and physical distancing, maintained personal hygiene and healthy eating habits, and established family determination to fight against COVID-19.
For instance, for more than three weeks in our home, we always maintained a 6-feet distance between family members. We paid more attention to personal hygiene than ever before. It became a regular habit in the family to wash our hands with soap and water whenever we touched anything around us. Likewise, we have been using paper towels, our inside elbow, and face masks to cover the mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing. We even separated plates, bowls, and cups so that everyone would have their own utensils for eating their meals. From the youngest to the eldest family members, we were vigilant about not using any materials used by others in the family without cleaning them first.
Similarly, we established a culture of assessing situations as they arose and providing necessary support to each other such as preparing meals for everyone and providing home remedies as needed in order to boost morale among family members to fight the disease. In addition to this, we gave special attention to eating healthy food as we needed to maintain a strong immune system to fight against the disease. Although the taste of food was lost due to the infection, we set a habit of eating at least three meals every day.
The food that we ate included various fruits, fresh meals including rice, lentils, or vegetable soup, and bread. We drank plenty of boiled water with honey, basil leaves, or ginger and garlic. In addition, we have been drinking tea made from hibiscus flowers on a regular basis. We still do this every day as a home remedy. We also inhaled steam from boiled water infused with Vicks or Sancho (herbal oil) for 15 to 20 minutes once or twice a day to minimize the risk of having respiratory problems. We also took over the counter Tylenol for fever, and Delsym (liquid medicine) for cough as per the doctor’s advice.
Although some of these home remedies are not proven scientifically to cure or prevent COVID-19, these therapeutic methods have indirectly helped us to fight against the disease. This is what my family and I have experienced. However, it is not always advisable to follow what we did in my family, as some people may get allergic reactions or may experience additional health related problems while taking these home remedies. I would suggest those people who are at risk of such side effects to consult their doctors before deciding to use any of these home remedies.
After almost four weeks of stress and suffering, most of our symptoms are gone now and we are now fully recovered. With no symptoms for at least 72 hours, my wife resumed her work at the hospital two weeks ago. They did not test her again, even though she tested positive in the beginning. Although everyone in the family, including my children, were taken ill with similar symptoms, no one tested positive except my wife. Thus, we do not know yet if all of us were positive for COVID-19. However, it does not matter much as I have been feeling healthy again and all other members in the family are doing well. We have sacrificed so much for our survival and in winning the war with the invisible enemy.
From my personal point of view as a member of a family who survived COVID-19, I believe it would be wise to avoid the mental distress of fighting against COVID-19. My suggestion would be to follow the guidelines released by the World Health Organization and similar regulations implemented by the government. Our experience in the family shows that it is important to follow social and physical distancing, maintain personal hygiene, establish healthy eating habits, and follow doctor’s recommendations in using any home remedies or other therapeutic treatments to fight against this disease. There is no need to panic. We will all win together if we follow these precautionary measures.
The author, a Certified Community Health Worker and a community leader, is a former Bhutanese refugee who spent almost 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. His family was resettled in the US in 2008 under the third country resettlement program.