Wear. Your. Mask.
My name is Bryan Belrad, and today (May 5, 2020) marks the 50th day since I was struck by the virus that even now continues to ravage the world. I survived, though my symptoms were so severe that whether I would or not was seriously in doubt.
Because so many were having trouble understanding the severity of the pandemic, especially during the early days, I decided to document and make public the progression of my iteration of the illness. I've used photos, digital art, and a few snapshots, to show what happened to one person - me - through the course of the disease's worst phase.
Since the pandemic is ongoing, this exhibition must of necessity be virtual. Perhaps that is for the best. For one thing, I never get to use fancy frames like these at a physical gallery show. More importantly, what I have to share can reach a lot more people this way. Maybe it will do some good.
This is what I looked like immediately before Covid got to me. While I've limited this gallery to 10 images, I felt it important to include this one as a baseline for comparison.
Very shortly after this, I would experience rib-cracking coughing that would go on all through the night. I was forced to call in sick for the first time in over 10 years, because of my inability to get any sleep.
By day 3 of this relentless coughing, I started having seizures. I fell, a lot. Things got broken, not the least of which was my head, but also included a table, a chair, and at least one plate when I collapsed into an open dishwasher.
"It's just a flu"
It took me 9 days to regain enough energy to even attempt a decent picture. This was at a point when many people were saying things like "oh it's just a flu" so I knew it was important to show them that wasn't the case. My face was already banged up, but little did I know, things were just getting started.
"Only the old are at risk"
On day 11, a seizure hit me while I was on a stairway. I woke up I don't know how much later, a gash on the back of my head pouring blood all over the concrete I'd fallen on. A CT scan at the local ER said my skull hadn't cracked, though that particular wound is still healing, 39 days later.
It wasn't my only fall, as the photo shows. That was perhaps the most terrifying part - that I could "wink out" at any time, and regain consciousness on the kitchen floor, or tangled in the wreck of a piece of furniture, in the shower, or at the bottom of a flight of stairs, with who knew what new injuries to go along with the actual virus.
"It's a hoax"
I finally had enough energy to do a proper portrait again. The location of my bumps and bruises and abrasions, particularly on my head, had changed since my last effort, and my eyes were showing a lot of blood in them.
I'd been to three different medical facilities at this point. They couldn't help, only test to see which bones or organs were damaged or not. One doctor even said "We could give you antibiotics; they won't help with a virus, but I don't know what else we can do for you."
"It can't affect ME"
Some injuries were healing, and eyes were completely red. They were sore too, but so was every inch of my body. I did not have the energy to do a formal portrait, but I felt it was important to document.
I put a lot of mental effort into optimism. Since I lacked the strength to physically do much, I opted create a digital artwork of some of the things I was holding on to as a way of getting through.
I painted over my visible injuries and my eyes as well. My eyes especially were scaring people, and since this one was for hope and inspiration rather than "accuracy", I took away the nightmare elements.
"It's only 65,000 dead"
A seizure near a heating vent resulted in my regaining consciousness with a carved up forehead. I suppose it's lucky I didn't lose an eye... from a certain point of view.
On the plus side, my eyes were starting to clear, and though I was still having coughing fits, they were no longer constant, allowing me to sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time. At a few points I got almost 2 hours in one block.
Four weeks in, I wanted to fight back. It took me days to create this image, in part because of my low energy, but I believe the constant focus on determination to win against the virus actually helped.
"But *I'm* not sick"
My last visit to an Urgent Care center. No regular physician would see me. I can't blame them; they wanted to protect their staff members. Bad news for me, though.
The good news was my eyes were getting back to normal, and my injuries were healing. I hadn't had a seizure in almost a day, and coughing fits were a lot less frequent.
While no test they could administer was in any way conclusive, it looked like I might just survive the worst.
"It's complete hype"
I was still hurting but clearly in much better shape. I even had energy to make a real portrait.
The coughing is less frequent, and the seizures have stopped, but I can't get a doctor to sign off on a medical release letting me go back to work, which is probably for the best, health-wise at least.
My biggest hurdle from that point up to now is financial. I've been out of work for 50 days, and my sick time ran out long ago. I'm on duly-authorized medical leave, however, so I'm not "unemployed" per se, and until the most recent changes in New York policy, I did not qualify for assistance.
Like millions of other New York residents, I'm waiting to hear back, wondering IF, not when, any help might be coming.
By contrast, the medical bills are very prompt. They're piling up now, thousands and thousands of dollars, while I continue to deal with zero income. It's a very stressful situation, and while that too is a crisis (on top of the pandemic itself) many people everywhere are dealing with, I can safely bet that the burden of constant worry isn't helping my recovery any.
And while this impossible situation isn't part of Covid itself, it is part of the experience of living (or "not dying") through this pandemic. A cruel and unnecessary part, but a very real part nonetheless.
"Only in America can you survive a literal plague and still 'not make it'."
Afterword: Day 100
"Most people survive."
I fully intended to let this stand at Day 50, but I severely underestimated the foolishness of some of our fellow citizens.
Somehow, there is still argument over the simple matter of wearing a mask in public. I'm frequently hearing nonsense statements like "most people survive" as if that somehow made the now over 120,000 deaths - almost all of those preventable - no big deal.
The anti-mask (pro-death?) folk know the facts of course. Masks work. They're simple. They're (finally) widely available. They're less of a burden than having to wear shoes in a store. They are literally the least anybody can do.
The problem is that people still think the odds are so strongly in their favor, it isn't even worth the trouble to bother with this most minimal of protective measures. They believe, because they want to believe, that the odds of getting sick are very low, and even if they do get sick, the odds of dying are even lower.
But there's something they're failing to consider: this isn't just a matter of JUST life or death. If you survive a severe case of this virus, you don't just go back to the health you had before. You do not "bounce back".
There are reports of people days or weeks post discharge who suddenly suffer strokes or heart attacks as a result of lasting damage from the virus.
As for me, extensive examinations have shown me a horrifying level of detail in the severity of the destruction the virus left in its wake.
To identify just a few (beyond the obvious scar on my forehead): my lungs are all but made of scar tissue now; I survived, but oxygen exchange is limited and any impurity in air quality can trigger an asthma-like attack. Vision in my right eye is reduced; I survived, but damage to the retina has limited both my area of vision and the resolution I can perceive. There are tears in my abdominal walls; one doctor warned me of "internal disembowelment" if the coughing fits persist - which they still do. Most troubling of all, there is brain damage. I survived, but I'm now prone to "glitches" of cognition that I'm not aware of, such as misspelling my own name. That particular error had to be pointed out to me by medical staff before I could see it.
These are just a few examples from one person's experience. I suspect I have it much better than many others.
The point, of course, is that YOU DON'T WANT THIS.
You may not ever be infected with Covid, and I hope that's how it work out for you. But millions of people have it, and millions more will catch it before this is through. The odds you won't die are not as good as some people seem to think - but it isn't just whether you live or die. It's also about what life will look like for you even if you do pull through.
You do not want to watch your child struggle for their last breath. You do not want to look on as your spouse starts hacking up blood, coughing so hard their ribs break. You do not want to have to live the rest of your life knowing your parent died alone and in agony. You do not want to be the asymptomatic carrier that gave it to them.
And even if you're some kind of psychopath who truly does not care about any of that - you do not want to experience what I've experienced, and have to live with the permanent damage the virus inflicts on survivors.
Wear. Your. Mask.
© 2020 Bryan Belrad