by Sally James
Federico Olivas and Julian Perez are both dancers in the same folk group, Bailadores de Bronce, that celebrates Mexican traditions. They both work in healthcare. And in recent weeks, both survived COVID-19. For each of them, this past Thanksgiving included an extra helping of gratitude.
Alone in his unfinished basement, Dr. Perez remembers praying every night.
“I was praying that I would wake up in the morning. It was very scary,” he told the Emerald. Dr. Perez is a primary care doctor in South Seattle and in a downtown hospital.
Because of his work since the pandemic arrived here in March, he has been living downstairs in his house the whole time, trying to protect his 8-year-old daughter and wife from catching any virus he might bring home.
But after Dr. Perez was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of October, he was sick with a fever and feeling terrible, alone in quarantine, lying on a cot in his basement.
His friend Olivas lives in Sammamish and works at University of Washington Medical Center as a respiratory technician. Both men see COVID-19 patients and take precautions with masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment — or PPE. But they have not seen each other since March, and neither one knows exactly where he might have caught the illness. Both say it did not seem linked to their work.
Dr. Perez wants people in the community to double down on precautions and understand that a person without symptoms could be carrying it anywhere.
Frightening numbers from King County Public Health show that the pandemic is accelerating its growth in South King County, as well as across the state. Many hospitals in King County have announced they are delaying non-emergency surgeries to leave room and staff available for COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks. New testing kiosks are planned for Capitol Hill and the Central District, and the Emerald reported that a new testing site in Highline opened to serve residents in South King County. Officials are also asking people without symptoms not to come for testing because lines have become so long, according to a story in The Seattle Times.
“The first line of defense is the community — people being smart and distancing and not gathering … wearing their masks all the time,” Perez said. Healthcare workers are linebackers who come in to help rescue those who are infected, but the community is where the pandemic can be stopped, Perez emphasizes.
His fever caused by the novel coronavirus felt unlike any fever he’s ever known. He suffered the illness in two waves, with a few days of feeling better in between. He knew from caring for patients that it’s not uncommon to have a first and then a second wave of illness.
“It is a scary experience to think to yourself, okay, I made it through the first round and I got a couple of days to get my affairs in order before I get this next phase,” Dr. Perez recalled. During the first six months of this pandemic, he has been exposed and quarantined four times, and he updated his will and made preparations in case he died. In those other four exposures, he never caught the disease, but he had to isolate and stay home from work each time.
By Day 10 of his illness, Dr. Perez still had some fever. He knew how to check his own oxygen level with a device called a pulse oximeter. His breathing was ragged and he did drive in to get a chest X-ray, which showed his lungs were pretty normal. By Day 12, he finally felt well enough and safe walking upstairs and joining his wife and daughter.
For Olivas also, there were distinct sensations that made this illness different from anything else he’s ever suffered.
“I had a sensation in my lungs of burning when I coughed,” he told The Emerald. He was sick enough that he spent two days in the hospital. He lives in a small condominium with his wife, and keeping apart was difficult. But she has not caught the illness.
For both of these men, their days of tending to other people made them acutely aware of every symptom in their own bodies. As a respiratory technician, Olivas spends his days thinking about lungs. Perez had seen hospitalized patients cycle through waves of infection.
Dr. Perez has thought about patient perspectives before, but mostly in regard to culture and how important it is for people to have physicians who share their culture. There is a shortage of Latinx physicians in Washington, as the Emerald recently reported.
“Culture really matters when people come to you as a patient …” he said. “Being able to expose yourself in a state of weakness or ignorance about what’s going on is much easier to do with someone who looks like you and talks your language.”
Olivas said he is privileged, unlike many in the community who cannot afford to take a month off, to be able to stay home for quarantine and recovery. The pandemic has hit Latinx and Native Hawai‘ian or Other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) harder than other ethnic groups in King County. In a September summary, Public Health Seattle-King County reported that for people under 60 years old, Latinx people comprised 42% of deaths from COVID-19, while only representing about 12% of the King County population.
Both men urge everyone to take the warnings seriously.
Olivas remembers lying in his hospital bed watching Governor Jay Inslee’s television speech about staying home for the holidays and keeping families safe.
“Good advice,” he thought as he lay there. He’s already told all of his family that he’s not getting together with any of them during this holiday season.
For the two men, the days of dancing in a circle to a raucous Mexican beat hover out of reach and out of sight ahead somewhere in the post-pandemic future. The Bailadores is a dance group created during the 1970s as a way of preserving the cultures of Mexico here in the damp Northwest. They will stomp their feet in gratitude when the music and the lines of dancers can gather again. But for now, the virus holds the dancing hostage.
Sally James is a Seattle-based science reporter.
Featured Image: Julian Perez (far left) and Federico Olivas (center). Photo credit to Colette Bee. Photo used with permission from Bailadores de Bronce.
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