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First Person: An RFE/RL Correspondent's Battle With COVID-19 In Russia

Lyubov Chizhova, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service, developed a fever and other symptoms of COVID-19 in late April. (file photo)
Lyubov Chizhova, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service, developed a fever and other symptoms of COVID-19 in late April. (file photo)

When the COVID-19 epidemic was just beginning, I told my friends that I shouldn't get sick because the medical services in my part of Moscow Oblast (I live in Nakhabino, some 15 kilometers outside the Moscow city limits) wouldn't be able to handle it. We don't have any showcase hospitals like Kommunarka [which President Vladimir Putin toured in late March]. The doctors in our regional clinics don't understand what they are dealing with. And it is certain you will not be able to get a CT scan, which can determine the extent of a lung infection with nearly 100 percent accuracy.

In Nakhabino, there are no CT scanners. With a population of nearly 50,000, there is only one clinic. In short, I didn't plan to get sick. I worked from home and only rarely went to the store -- always in a mask and gloves.

Unfortunately, my husband had to continue going to work. His office did not shut down for the epidemic and, most likely, I got the infection from him. Luckily, neither he nor our daughter got sick or developed any symptoms of COVID-19.

I first felt poorly on April 20. I had a fever and developed an annoying dry cough. I called for a doctor from our clinic, but a very young woman without a mask or gloves came to me. She said all the experienced doctors were on sick leave.

She listened to my lungs and said that everything was fine. She diagnosed me with a respiratory infection and gave me a prescription for azithromycin (this is a cheaper analog of sumamed that, as I now understand, is prescribed to everyone). I am used to following the orders of a doctor -- even a very young one -- and took the medicine correctly. But I kept getting worse.

Through The Roof

My fever rose and rose. My cough got worse. I was nauseated and my entire body ached. I lost my sense of smell. I was flushed and my eyes hurt. I had nightmares all night. (It turns out that anxiety, depression, and poor sleep are also parts of this illness.)

All during this time, having read the stories of people who had already been infected with the coronavirus, I tried to find somewhere I could get a CT scan. Everywhere that I called told me I'd have to wait at least three weeks. As might be expected, the prices had gone through the roof.

But, as usual for me, I got lucky. One private clinic in Istra phoned me back and said there had been a cancelation. On April 27, I applied for a QR code [required by Moscow authorities for movement during the COVID-19 lockdown], called a taxi, and went for a CT scan of my lungs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a "showcase" hospital on the outskirts of Moscow in March.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a "showcase" hospital on the outskirts of Moscow in March.

The whole procedure took less than an hour. A young doctor handed me the report and told me to get to a hospital immediately. The scan showed bilateral interstitial pneumonia (double pneumonia) with a high probability of COVID-19. Some 10 to 15 percent of my lungs were affected. Later, after I was hospitalized, they did another CT scan and found 25 percent of each lung affected.

Following the doctor's advice, I called my local clinic. They became frightened and told me there was nothing they could do to help me and that I should immediately call an ambulance.

'End Of The World'

I had a fever of 38.5 degrees Celsius, a CT scan that almost certainly indicated COVID-19, and a diagnosis of pneumonia, but no ambulance came for me. Now, I perfectly well understand that I probably didn't have the worst case in the whole course of this epidemic, but they at least could have told me: "We can't send you an ambulance."

But, no. They promised they would come. They called me back and told me to pack my things. They even told me which hospital they would take me to -- the main hospital in Kashira, some 115 kilometers from Moscow. Ok, I thought, if it is Kashira, so be it. I was willing to go to the end of the world because I didn't have much confidence that I'd be able to cure pneumonia and coronavirus myself at home.

But no one came for me. At first, they said that there were too many calls and that they would come for me within 24 hours. After 20 hours, I got an SMS saying they weren't coming.

Paramedics take an elderly woman to the hospital durinig the coronavirus lockdown in central Moscow.
Paramedics take an elderly woman to the hospital durinig the coronavirus lockdown in central Moscow.

I called the dispatcher, but no one answered the phone. I called various hotlines and emergency services -- I tried to understand why they cancelled my request and what I was to do next. No one could tell me anything. One young man -- an operator at the Moscow regional coronavirus hotline -- told me honestly: "I don't know what you should do, and no one else does either."

All this time, I was in touch with my friends and posting on social media. Some wonderful doctors -- friends and friends of friends -- gave me advice on how to beat back the fever. But it rose from 38 degrees to nearly 40 and nothing would break it.

Scared And Angry

On April 28, a young woman from the local clinic came to me, this time in protective gear. She wrote me a prescription for amoksiklav and wrote out a hospitalization order.

The antibiotics didn't help. I didn't feel any better. I'll admit that I was getting scared and angry too. Someone advised me to calm down and treat myself at home. But understandably I wasn't interested in adding to the statistics of people over 40 without chronic illnesses who up and died of coronavirus.

In the end, I did make it to a hospital because I know how to achieve my ends. I won't go into details about how I managed it, but I will say that without good friends -- old and new -- I wouldn't have made it. On the evening of April 28, I was finally taken to the infectious-diseases ward of the regional hospital in Odintsovo. My doctor was named Aleksandr Litvinov, a genuine professional -- confident and competent, although downcast and tired. He promised that he would cure me.

I spent almost 10 days in the hospital. All that time, I had an IV drip with antibiotics. I was given antimalarial drugs, antifungal medications, and anticoagulants. My fever dragged on for five days. I had a terrible headache. My stomach hurt, and my cough got worse. I kept having nightmares.

Doctors have told Lyubov Chizhova that she is still sick, but not infectious (file photo)
Doctors have told Lyubov Chizhova that she is still sick, but not infectious (file photo)

On April 30, I was given a coronavirus test, which came back negative. The doctor immediately said the test doesn't matter since my clinical presentation and my CT scan confirmed COVID-19.

The hospital itself wasn't that bad. They cleaned up regularly and fed us normally. The completely exhausted nurses found time to cheer and comfort me.

I began to get better on the sixth day. They took some more analyses and promised that I'd be discharged soon. On May 8, I headed home. My diagnosis was COVID-19 although they never confirmed that I had the novel coronavirus.

'Not Broken Yet'

When I was released, I still had moderate walking pneumonia. The doctor said I was still sick, but not infectious. Now I am much better. My cough is almost gone and only bothers me at night. For the first time in 20 days, my temperature is less than 37 degrees. My husband and daughter have been registered as people who have had contact with an infected person. They have also been tested, and the results were negative.

I will continue treatment for a month, including more antibiotics, antifungals, anticoagulants, and medicine for my stomach and kidneys since during my time in the hospital I had to take too many pills. After that treatment is over, I will have to do another CT scan and find a pulmonary therapist who can help me revive my lungs after the pneumonia.

You may ask: What is the moral of this story? There is no moral. Everyone does their best to survive. That's the way it has always been. The amazing thing is that our so-called "optimized" Russian medicine has not broken yet, despite the efforts of our bureaucrats. We still have qualified doctors, despite the low salaries and inhumane working conditions. Our nurses still joke and smile with their last bit of strength.

How long that will last, I just don't know.

Translated from Russian by Robert Coalson

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