A Latino man in a hospital bed and gown with oxygen tube in his nose.

My Cousin Didn’t Think COVID-19 Was Serious. Then He Ended Up in the Hospital.

A Latino man in a hospital bed and gown with oxygen tube in his nose.

The coronavirus felt “like my whole body was shutting down,” said Jose Bernal, seen in a selfie he took while in the hospital.

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Interview, Maria Bernal

In July, my cousin Jose Bernal, 32, spent one week in the hospital because of COVID-19. He didn’t believe the coronavirus was as dangerous as the media reported until he tested positive after taking a trip. Our family became distraught when we learned that Jose, who had been diagnosed with asthma at a young age, was not recovering and had pneumonia. Around the same time, other people we knew began to die due to COVID.

Now in recovery, Jose told me about his experience with COVID-19 and the stigma that comes with it. This conversation has been lightly edited.

Maria Bernal: Why did you believe the coronavirus was made up?

Jose Bernal: I knew it was real. I just didn’t think it was this bad. I was like “Whatevs, this is probably just a rare flu.” That’s what I looked at it as.

I mean, I didn’t know anybody who had it. I didn’t know. I would ask if my friends or family had it, and everybody would tell me, they didn’t know anybody so for all I know, this probably not that big of a deal.

That’s the way I looked at it.

I always thought [the media] was overhyping it. I still think they overhype the numbers. I don’t believe in all the numbers.

I’ve just always been the type that I don’t believe everything I see or hear on the news.

The people like me who don’t fully believe it was this deadly — I feel like until it hits someone close to them or [a] family member, then that’s when they realize, “This is real. It’s really this bad.”

MB: Can you describe how you found out you had COVID-19 and what that was like for you?

JB: It hit me hard.

I started feeling sick, and it wasn’t like a normal sick. It was a strange feeling that I had. My whole body was aching. Just the fevers that I was getting, I knew it wasn’t normal, so I decided to go to Kaiser and get tested.

It took three days for me to get the results, but I kind of already knew I had it. Just the way I was feeling. It wasn’t like regular flu.

I didn’t have a cough. I didn’t have a sore throat. It was more like my whole body was shutting down. I felt weak. I couldn’t eat [anything]. Everything tasted salty. I couldn’t smell. I couldn’t taste. The only thing I could eat was fruits.

As the days went by, I started feeling worse and worse, and that’s when I started getting scared.

I never felt this sick before. It got to the point I couldn’t breathe. Shortness of breath just walking to the bathroom. Taking a shower, I was having a hard time breathing. I would start coughing and sweating a lot.

I was like, “This isn’t right.” I went to the emergency room three times, and all three times, they kept sending me home. Like, “Just quarantine, quarantine. There’s nothing we can do. Take Tylenol.”

I had an oxygen meter, so I could check my oxygen, what level it is. And I told [the doctor] my oxygen was at, like, 84. [The doctor] said my oxygen levels were too low: “You are at danger. You need to come to the ER now.”

[Jose was transferred to Oakland Kaiser after being diagnosed with pneumonia.]

Fifteen liters [of oxygen] wasn’t enough. [The nurse] was like, “I have to put you on the high oxygen treatments. After that, if you can’t breathe, we are going to have to take you to the ICU and put you on the ventilator.” I started getting hella scared.

When they put you on a ventilator, they put you [in] a coma, and there’s basically no knowing if you’re ever going to make it out of there. So I got really scared, really nervous. I started thinking about my family. I was like, “What if I don’t make it out of here?”

Now, I’m more scared because [at that time] I was at 100% oxygen, and I still [had] issues breathing.

I’m really scared. I don’t want to die. That’s when my parents got scared, and my dad was crying on the phone with me [and] my mom. It kind of just broke me down. I started feeling a lot of selfishness because I was putting them through that. It was my fault, for traveling when I shouldn’t have and [exposing] myself to this virus. Now, it’s not just me going through this but my whole family because they’re worried about me. And I don’t even know if I’m going to make it out.

That was the toughest part. The first night. Not knowing. Nobody could be there with me.

MB: Can you talk more about how the virus has affected you, especially with your asthma?

JB: It still affects me because my lungs haven’t fully recovered yet. I still have issues. When I walk fast, when I walk upstairs, or when I walk long periods of time, I run out of breath.

This is all still new to [the doctor] too. I got X-rays two weeks ago. My doctor said she still sees stuff that looks like white cotton balls on both of my lungs.

I’m getting another X-ray next month. Once I get the X-ray, they will be able to pretty much determine if I am going to be able to fully recover or [if] this is going to be permanent.

At least, I am able to move around now. I’m able to go out, walk outside, go to the store, do normal things I was doing. For two months, I wasn’t able to do [anything]. I was home, stuck for two months. I barely started trying to enjoy life again.

MB: How has getting sick changed your perspective on the coronavirus for yourself and others?

JB: I’m definitely scared to travel. At least in a plane. I’m kind of just traumatized. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to stop me from traveling but definitely going to be more cautious about it.

I want to take trips. I want to enjoy my life. I want to see new places I haven’t seen. I don’t want to let this stop me from doing that.

Definitely how the virus is, yeah, it did change the way I think about it. It obviously is pretty deadly to certain people. Certain people might not feel the same symptoms as I did.

MB: Is there anything else you want to share regarding COVID-19?

JB: Be careful and be respectful to others, on how they feel about it. Everybody is going to think different, so just respect people’s opinions.

Don’t judge people if they take this serious ’cause some people don’t want to get sick. Let people be safe, as safe as they want to be.

I also want people to know not to judge the people who got COVID-19 because I’ve had a lot of experiences right now where certain people don’t want to come around me because I had COVID-19. They’re acting like COVID-19 is in me forever. You need to educate yourself on how COVID-19 works. You can’t have that forever.

People got sick, yes. I understand people are scared but that doesn’t mean you have to act a certain way with people that are already sick.

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