Growing up as a young black girl, I was well aware of what it felt like and looked like to be treated less than. In my middle-class home, we talked about racism. I was armed with words to say in defense of who I was, words like: I am the same as you. When I bleed, my blood is red just like yours. Today, I am the mother of three half Sri Lankan, half African American children. I must arm them with words to help shield against the racism they too will one day face.
When I entered the emergency room in mid-March, I did not walk in thinking I’d face any discrimination. I knew what it looked like and felt like, how subtle or how blatantly clear it could be. As a black woman, I know what to look for: the body language, the words, the actions, that scream racism. Still, I had never faced it in a hospital, at a time when I needed care the most.
My symptoms spoke for themselves: a fever of 102, a cough, body aches, congestion. It would be a huge mistake not to test me, not only for my family’s safety, but for many others. Just as the pandemic gained momentum on the East Coast, I felt both nervous and scared, but hopeful as I entered the room. The paper covering on the bed crunched with every move I made; my eyes darted back and forth to the door, nervously waiting for the doctor to enter.
When she did, she was clothed in personal protective equipment from head to toe, and by her side was a medical student, also wearing PPE. She remained by the door, almost glued to the wall and far from my bed. Their gear rattled me. I was not expecting to see them so well-protected. I’d not even been tested for the virus, so why the extra precaution? Their fear was that I had COVID-19.
When they left, as I awaited the results of my flu, RSV and strep tests, I scrolled Facebook. The fear around who had and who did not have COVID-19 took up every single post on my news feed. White friends of mine posted about how sick they were, how sick their family members were. They shared if their test results were positive or negative. My hope grew, as I swiped up and down Facebook, that I too would later post about my COVID-19 test results. I thought, surely, if they can get a test, I can. My symptoms are spot on.
My results for the flu, RSV, and strep all came back negative. The physician’s words to me: We are going to assume you have COVID-19. Here are papers to excuse you from work as you quarantine. Stay away from your family: no sharing of forks, towels, or anything that could transmit the virus. Use a separate bathroom if you have it, and stay in the guest room if you’re able. If you feel worse — your breathing becomes labored or your fever spikes — come back to us. For now, we just wait.
I used my kids as bait. Surely, this doctor would not want two innocent little girls to get infected, or my son. Or allow my Sri Lankan American wife to provide spiritual care to her patients as their chaplain, and unknowingly infect them. The hospital I chose to go to was the same hospital I gave birth in.
I used my job as leverage to continue to advocate for myself and the patients I work with. I am the director of programs at a heart health nonprofit in New York City, the epicenter of the virus. I frequent hospitals within New York City facilitating events for heart patients.
I walked the physician through my event schedule those first two weeks of March. I explained to her where I was and at which hospital just before I started to feel symptoms. None of this seemed to matter.
This was a different experience than what I heard on the news: if you were in contact with anyone who was positive with the Coronavirus, you’d get a test. This, at least for me, simply was not true. Maybe I simply had the wrong skin color, demeanor, or attitude to warrant a test. I’d heard stories (also within my Facebook community) that friends of color here in Connecticut needed to go to a wealthier town to even get a test at a drive-up testing site.
In the emergency room, my pleas fell on deaf ears. There was nothing she could do. Her hands were tied and tests were very limited. As a way to pacify me, she told me they could only offer me a chest x-ray but were fearful that it would not give them the information they needed to definitively say I was positive or negative. I explained that my wife was a hospital chaplain in this very ER.
“Don’t we need to know if I am positive so she doesn’t infect other people?” I asked.
The answer — let’s see if she gets sick. None of this was helpful. Regulations at the time were that my wife would need to self-quarantine along with me, and self-monitor our symptoms at home. We would need to manage our health, our kids’ schooling, our work schedules, and remain in the house for the next fourteen days. There was nothing I could say or do to walk out of the hospital that night knowing for sure if I was positive or negative.
For my wife, this meant transitioning to working from home before there was an official mandate within her hospital. We watched and we waited. We waited to see if my symptoms got worse. We relocated our son so I could take his bedroom. We made sure our daughters stayed away, and we explained why I could not hug them.
We called our state’s hotline to see if I could get a test, three days after my ER visit. The answer: call your primary care physician. I did. She informed me that tests were limited and it would be hard for her to get a test herself to administer to me.
My fever had dropped, my lethargy remained and my voice was starting to go. By Day 5, I had more energy. By Day 8, I’d given up on the quarantine and needed to hug my kids. Before I knew it, Day 14 was upon us and my quarantine was over. In those 14 days, I vented to anyone who would listen about how I needed a test.
I wanted and needed to safely hug my kids. I needed the affection that only they could provide me with. My symptoms had left, all except my feeling of exhaustion. I had no fever, no cough, and minimal body aches. My wife could resume her work in the hospital. And I’d work from home, pick up where I’d left off stuck between work meetings on Google Hangout, three Show and Tell Zoom meetings a week with my preschoolers, and monitoring my son’s obsession with YouTube while balancing it with his schoolwork.
It was hard. Distance learning was in full effect in my house, post the COVID-19 hysteria we found ourselves in that March. But my fear still loomed as I leaned into the lesson of the day. Was I spreading the coronavirus to my kids? I would never know the answer.
I chose to go to a hospital, close to my home located in the poorest city within our county, which also happens to be the richest county in our state. I chose this hospital because I felt comfortable going there. Yet according to the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut-based newspaper, Connecticut’s black residents have tested positive at a rate 120% greater than white residents and died at a rate that is 41% higher.
I could not get a test while I was symptomatic but with the expansion of contact testing, and increased antibody tests, I was able to finally receive an antibody test. Two months to the day of when I experienced symptoms, I had the results of my antibody test. They came back negative.
What I now know is that antibody tests are not 100% accurate. I must come to terms with the fact that I may never know if I was positive or not. There is a nagging fear that I am infecting other people even though my antibody test came back negative. I don’t believe it to be true because these tests are also unreliable.
Maybe my entire experience can be summed up as this: not everyone can get a test because they are limited. Maybe my symptoms were not severe enough. Maybe I was negative. Maybe I was positive. Maybe the reason I could not get a test had nothing to do with the color of my skin. But maybe it had everything to do with why I was not offered a test. Or just maybe these tests weren’t meant for people who look like me.