OUR COVID-19 JOURNEY: Surviving the ordeal at home

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 09 June) — This is an essay I promised many of my friends who journeyed with my family through COVID-19 and asked me how we survived the ordeal while managing it at home despite the difficulties. I write about presence of mind, common sense, hygiene, Western medicine, and Indigenous Knowledge (IKSP). I am sharing this experience as cases surge in Mindanao. It was in April 2021, at the height of the second wave in Metro Manila when COVID-19 struck our home and infected my husband, Bj.

Onset of symptoms. Bj’s first symptom was dizzyness and a high blood pressure (BP). We did not suspect it was COVID-19 because he had been hypertensive since the start of the lockdowns last year. His BP was uncontrolled (i.e., no medication) so to lower it we got prescription medicine via e-consultation with a doctor. That was on a Sunday night, April 4. The next day he developed a fever and felt a shortness of breath. We assumed it was COVID-19 until proven otherwise. We immediately isolated him in the room we were staying in because we knew it was already contaminated. Pablo, our 10-year old son, and I moved to his bedroom. We started wearing masks at home.

Getting tested. We were afraid of the high rates of infection outside so we decided to go for home-based testing. We were lucky because Metro Manila, unlike most places beyond the National Capital Region (NCR), had several home-servicing testing centers. We availed of the service of a reputable testing facility that used the COVID-19 test kit developed by Dr. Raul Destura with funding support from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). The three of us decided to get tested at the same time because: 1) we were a co-sleeping family, and 2) most of the time, Bj and I shared drinking glasses and dessert plates. Later on, we learned that we should have waited until Bj’s tests came out and did additional tests only if he tested positive. We were all going on quarantine, anyway.

Home care. We got excellent guidance from the webinar, When COVID Hits Your Home, by Dr. Anna Lim Ong sponsored by Santuario de San Antonio, and the COVID Care Tips developed by the Office of the Vice President (OVP) of Leni Robredo and made available online. The infographics from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) Class ‘91 was also helpful. We supplied ourselves with a thermometer, an oximeter, a BP monitor, medicines, vitamins to boost immunity, masks, and disinfectant.

In an ideal setting, the patient should undergo laboratory tests to determine their exact condition. But since we could no longer leave the house given Bj’s infection (we don’t own a car), all diagnosis will be based on our honest, accurate, and rigorous observation and reporting of symptoms. Aside from consulting with a cardiologist on managing his BP, we sought the help of an internist in monitoring and managing Bj’s symptoms. Both were done remotely via private messaging. I asked Bj to be honest with the doctor and me about all the symptoms he felt so we, the doctor included, would know how to manage the sickness. We monitored and recorded his BP, oxygen level, and temperature at least two times a day, and observed the onset of other symptoms and reported them to the internist daily. For this, the COVID-19 Monitoring Sheet prepared by the OVP was very helpful.

We never second-guessed our doctors and instead followed their advice to the letter. We politely turned down offers of access to Lianhua Qingwen and Ivermectin.

Pablo and I also had our own thermometer and oximeter and monitored our temperatures and waited for the onset of COVID-19 symptoms each day. We boosted our immunity by eating well, drinking lots of fluids and taking vitamins.

Was I worried? When Bj’s BP was still unmanaged and spiking, I was. We never self-medicated or used another person’s prescription to buy our own supply. The BP had to go down gradually because a sudden drop could be dangerous. We focused on the best course of action to get advice and a prescription from a doctor. We could not reach our cardiologist immediately (he was on COVID-19 duty). We insisted on arranging a consultation despite advice from family to change doctors. We didn’t want to gamble on someone who had no knowledge of Bj’s medical history. Thankfully, the doctor’s secretary put him on the priority list when we disclosed that he was positive.

When the BP was finally managed and his vitals were okay, I just chilled. I did not dwell on the what if’s and refused to be brought there. I took it one day at a time. The government’s pandemic response has been an epic failure. Hospital bed availability was hit-and-miss—you just couldn’t rely on it or include it in any planning. All the same, I made sure to have the numbers of the One Hospital Command Center, our Barangay Health Emergency Response Team (BHERT), ambulance services, as well as a PPE provider in case Bj had to be driven to a hospital by a family member.

We knew the critical oxygen level number by heart. At that time, WHO’s protocol pegged it at 94, while the UP PGH Class ‘91 infographic suggested 92. If it reached either of those numbers, we knew we had to arrange for hospitalization.

Bj’s reached 94 on our 8th day. We were still on Day 3 of the second phase of the virus’ evolution (Days 5 to 10). The internist gave him antibiotics that were for the treatment of pneumonia. That was when I asked for help from the family to download the One Hospital Command Center app just in case the infection progresses. Bj felt assured when he was prescribed antibiotics to address the bacterial co-infection. However, he developed nausea as a side effect. This had to be addressed again with medication because it affected his eating. When we finally reached Day 10 and his oxygen saturation did not go down, I knew we were going to make it.

He had a fever throughout the 10-day critical period plus another two days prior to when we had our swab tests (doctors count as day 1 the time when one gets tested). His highest temperature was 38 degrees centigrade, and he managed this by hydrating, taking paracetamol, and bathing. To ease his breathing, he got relief from a prone position when sleeping and deep-breathing exercises.

Challenges, bloopers and blessings. We are a nuclear family of three living in a condominium. As soon as Bj developed a fever, I called the manager of the condominium that we are getting tested. He instructed us not to go out anymore, made arrangements for our deliveries and garbage disposal, initiated contact tracing, and coordinated with BHERT. We also discussed the experience of other positive households in the condo. The Manager emphasized that he would not allow me and my son to leave our patient alone. Instead, we needed to isolate Bj in a room while we all quarantined in our unit. He told me of a neighbor’s case where the patient, who was left by his family to isolate alone, fell unconscious because his oxygen level dipped too low. The condo’s Property Management Office (PMO) had to rush him to the hospital. The presence and capacity of a caregiver is one of the WHO requirements for home care. Otherwise, isolation in a well-equipped facility needs to be arranged. Bj validated this protocol when he said there were moments when he felt he would collapse in the bathroom because it was so difficult to breathe.

We could not trace with certainty Bj’s source of infection. Bj has been on ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine) mode for the whole duration of the (ongoing) pandemic — the only times he regularly went out of the house was to pick up deliveries dropped off at the condominium gate. Two weeks before he got sick, he went to a diagnostics center for a quick blood extraction for some laboratory tests. Our doctors considered both of these activities as low risk especially since he always double-masked and wore a face shield. Recent findings have indicated that the COVID-19 coronavirus is airborne. So, I suggested to our property manager to enforce stricter policies regarding the condo elevator’s use. On top of disinfecting them regularly, only one household should use them per trip. However, I was told that this might create too much foot traffic. Because of this, I decided instead to disclose our situation to our residents’ social media chat group and advised them to minimize the use of elevators and to take the stairs if they can until it was clear that there was no community transmission. The number of COVID-19 cases in our condo reached 16 at that time. To allay our fears, the manager disclosed the potential sources of all the existing cases at that time (mostly from the workplace).

Our unit has a single bathroom so that was a bit of a challenge. WHO guidelines prescribe that home care is an option for households with at least two bathrooms. But the Manager said that all past and present cases in our condo involved single bathrooms, so it could be done. I had to disinfect the bathroom after each and every time Bj used it. For this, surface disinfectant spray and surface disinfectant wipes helped a lot aside from the usual solution that we used to mop our floors. I chose brands that were odorless. The smell of Lysol was torturous and triggered Pablo’s rhinitis, especially since Bj used it aggressively. Alam mong galit na galit sa veerus and the way the government has been handling the pandemic.

I also bought disposable gloves which Pablo really appreciated because they minimized his direct contact with bathroom surfaces. I removed our shower curtain to get rid of extra surfaces that the virus could cling to. It was easier to mop the floor than to disinfect the curtains all the time. I also removed all the things that did not need to be on the bathroom counter like décor and plants. We transferred our toothbrushes and soap as well as laundry bag to the bedroom.

For the toilet bowl, I stocked up on colored toilet bowl cleaner. Bj had to sprinkle the bowl water with it after each use. Why colored? It was a visual marker for me to know that it was already disinfected and safe to use. I also trained Pablo to ask me first if it was safe to use the bathroom before he entered.

Because we had a single bathroom and Bj knew how much time and effort I spent on cleaning it, there was a period when he lessened his fluid intake to minimize bathroom use. This aggravated his headache and caused his temperature to rise. I honestly wanted to wring his neck when I learned this. I could not fathom ending up widowed because my patient did not drink so he would pee less often. How then could I demand accountability and health justice for him because we are forced by the government’s mishandling of the pandemic to do home care? I had to remind him that like with an ordinary fever or flu, the most important thing to do is hydrate. Pablo was harsher and threatened him that we would resort to “dextrose” (i.e., intravenous therapy) if he did not drink lots of water. What I could not tell Pablo was that I was already so stressed because there were no oral rehydration salts in all the drug stores that offered online services in our city. It was a blessing that a friend sent us lots of buko juice that day and my sister sent lots of Gatorade. Those really helped Bj rehydrate for days.

On eating. Bj ate inside the room. We would lay his meal down on the floor outside his door, knock, and then run to our room while he collected it. Then he would spray the air with disinfectant so that it was safe for us to come out.

He had a different set of plates and utensils and dishwashing sponge. I would wash his plates with gloves after I had washed and secured ours. We did not use paper plates because we’re keeping our infectious garbage to a minimum to reduce the chances of passing the virus on to the maintenance staff who did the disposal for us.

Garbage disposal. Bj had his own garbage bags inside his room. He would secure all the bags and disinfect them before bringing them out of the room. I disinfected the garbage bags again and brought them out to the hallway for collection.

Communication. Bj and I immediately disclosed to our immediate family and colleagues that he had COVID-19. To save time we streamlined the communication line between us and other family members. Bj updated us with his vitals using only one online platform. He did so regularly so he did not have to keep replying when others asked after him. It gave him more time to rest and it saved me as well from echoing his message especially since I was swamped with domestic and care work as well as deliveries coordination.

It was very comforting that my work colleagues were compassionate and understanding. I did not have to explain myself; they told me that family came first and gave me time and space from work to take care of my family. They checked on me from time to time to make me feel I was not alone. That meant a lot.

Laundry. We washed Bj’s clothes only after he went out of isolation. He kept his soiled clothes inside his room.

On tuob (steam inhalation), Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) and other Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSPs)

It is not a cure but tuob is life. Tuob is a traditional home remedy to soothe and open air passages. It also helps one relax. I just made sure it was not too hot to damage our nose linings. In our case, we played with it by infusing the water with essential oils, mint, oregano/kalabo, salt, or unused tea bags.

I am a strong believer in Filipino traditional medicines. I am also an ardent admirer of the honor and excellence of Filipino scientists working with DOST under the leadership of Secretary Fortunato dela Peña. The studies of DOST-National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) indicated that while it is not a cure, VCO helps reduce symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Instead of the controversial Ivermectin, I trusted VCO because there were already scientific findings on its anti-viral properties. It is also safe. Former DOH Secretary Jaime Galvez Tan had advised that aside from drinking one tablespoon with your meals, one could practice VCO pulling at least twice a day.

Preparing children. We did not have time to prepare Pablo well. On Day 1 of the symptoms, we woke him up at dawn to transfer to another room. Later he overheard me arranging for tests. His first question was, “is Tatay going to die? Are we going to die?” When Bj got the results, it was Pablo who got the call as I was napping and he insisted on listening.

It helped that he had read and watched a lot of videos on YouTube about COVID-19. So I only had to reiterate the use of masks inside the house, wearing disposable gloves, washing hands frequently while singing the happy birthday song, and using hand sanitizers. I also gave him tasks so that he would feel involved in managing COVID-19 at home. It became his task to make sure our doors and windows were locked at night. The most difficult time was explaining to him why we could not simply take Bj to a hospital like we always did when we got sick. He asked this every time he would see me dead tired from all the domestic and care work. I answered his questions honestly: that the Duterte government managed this pandemic poorly by putting military men instead of the best Filipino doctors, health professionals, and scientists including health social scientists in charge; that the hospitals were overflowing with patients so there were no more beds available. Then we turned to prayers. Pablo coped by sharing the ordeal with his teachers and classmates, his therapists and friends. It was heartwarming that people who were significant to him were so generous with listening and understanding.

Post-COVID-19 life. Bj came out of isolation 14 days after he tested positive. He reported to our barangay LGU and obtained his barangay clearance. It took weeks before he fully recovered as he continued to feel a discomfort in his chest. Following the barangay’s advice, he registered for vaccination as soon as slots for the A3 category were made available. He got Sinovac and just finished his second jab last week. I on the other hand, am still waiting for the chance to register under my category. We continue to live on ECQ mode, save for doing some essential work and errands outside the house.

The vaccine protects us from moderate and severe forms of COVID-19, but a fully vaccinated person can still be a spreader. As I write this, the DOH has administered only 5,965,651 doses of vaccines, still far from reaching the government’s target of vaccinating 70 million people to reach herd immunity. Having experienced COVID-19 first hand, we know intimately how dangerous it is and we will not gamble with it or put other people at risk.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Eizel Hilario is an applied anthropologist working on ancestral domains, environment, biodiversity conservation, and transitional justice issues both at policy advocacy and community levels, while taking her Doctor of Social Development studies in UP Diliman and parenting a 10 year-old child. She grew up in Bukidnon and finished DevCom at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños.
MindaNews welcomes Mindanawons with a story to share about their own COVID journey. You may email
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