Severe pain radiated from the left side of my chest. My lungs felt scraped raw; two rib joints were so swollen they protruded like giant knuckles.
“It’s just inflammation from your body fighting covid. There’s nothing we can do,” the attending doctor said, after several tests had normal results. “Go home and rest. Take Advil.” It was raining as I drove home. I had entered a dark valley, and it would be three long months before I’d find my way out.
I fell into the valley on January 29, 2022, the day that thousands of truckers gathered on Parliament Hill. The day that 60 Canadian members of the Christian Reformed Church met on Zoom to discuss the denomination’s future. I was supposed to be reporting on both events, but instead I sat on a hospital bed behind a yellow curtain. A battered piece of paper was safety-pinned to the fabric: “COVID PATIENT. Do not enter without full PPE.”
At first I tried to pretend I wasn’t in a valley. Other people with Omicron had some cold symptoms, stayed in bed a few days, recovered. Surely I would too. I brought my laptop down into the valley like it was a new work-from-home location. Sure, the lighting was terrible, but if I squinted hard enough I could keep going. But pain hounded me throughout February. At each doctor’s visit, I tried to find the right metaphor to describe what I was feeling. Pain was a man in steel-toed boots standing on my sternum, grinding his heel. Pain was a ribcage vice, winching inward. Pain was iron fists punching my lungs. The only way I could move forward was by using Advil tablets like stepping stones, nine per day.
My wonderful family never gave me up for lost, even on the darkest days – and there were five of those. Five days I thought I would die in that valley; five nights when the pain seemed more than a body could bear or recover from. I could not find God. I could not see the path ahead. I stopped going to zoom meetings, to church, to frisbee games. Pain slowly ate away at my abilities until I couldn’t even walk the dog. By March I had stopped working and listening to the news. The world shrank until the valley of the shadow of covid was all I could see.
Other diseases have their own valleys. None easy. In this one, I kept tripping on existential issues. What kind of valley was it? “There are now 200 symptoms on the list of post-covid effects,” the cardiologist said, after my first heart ultrasound. “Your symptoms aren’t on that list.”
Two ER doctors told me that the inflammation was a coincidence and not related to covid at all. No one could give me a clear medical explanation or a route forward via diagnosis. Pleurisy? Costochondritis? Every theory was like a flare in the darkness, temporarily shedding a little light before fading away when the symptoms changed. Imagine having a broken leg and being told “this might heal in six weeks. Or a year.” Imagine seeing a news story about “long legs,” in which anyone with a former badly broken leg might have their bones spontaneously rebreak in the future, without warning. That’s what wandering through the covid valley felt like – a minefield of patchy facts in a fog of misinformation.
One night, curled up in pain, I heard God’s voice. It said: “Beloved.”
Without the usual tasks of life, I had been feeling useless. (A Calvinist work ethic gets frantic in valleys.) Who am I without the labels of “Editor,” “runner,” “Search Committee member”? When I can’t do much as a sister, daughter, mother, friend? By the end of March, it hurt to breathe. Who am I from the couch?
Beloved. Beloved is the answer. It helped me feel not smaller but lighter. It became a one-word prayer I focused on with every inhale.
On April 8, a shaft of sunlight pierced through the fog and found me. Two days earlier, I had cried out for help online. My family and close friends were weary; they had already come a long way alongside me, since January. The response from a wider community online was immediate: in person intercessory prayer, meals from church, medical advice, treatment suggestions, home-made fudge with CBD oil. I started physiotherapy, two new kinds of medication and renewed prayer. And God brought healing. Gradually, throughout May, I was able to return to work and my usual activities. I started running again – slowly, joyfully, stubbornly.
As I write this in the last week of May, pain occasionally flares up again, and it’s hard not to worry about tumbling back down into that valley. But the truth is, the ground could crumble underneath anyone’s feet, anytime. “Subconsciously,” writes Amy Kenny in her new book My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church, “we realize that everyone’s physical ability is a temporary situation.” Yet how cocky we are, on the crest. How confident that we’ll march along through clear vistas, forever.
This is all a little too fresh for me to end with a tidy conclusion. I still tense up when I hear that someone we know has covid. I’m still adding ridiculous qualifiers to every answer, when anyone asks, “How are you?” Recovery has its own timeline and there’s no pre-pandemic reset button, for any of us.
Until then, this blessing: May we extend grace to each other from the peaks, and to ourselves in the valleys. May compassion ceaselessly cut through the fog. May we all know, deep in our bones, that we are God’s beloved.
Post-covid symptoms widespread
According to new research, “more than half of the 236 million people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 will experience post-covid symptoms up to six months after recovering” (sciencedaily.com). Caring for the psychological and physical symptoms of these survivors will be a key task for churches, governments and health care professionals going forward.
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