SINGAPORE: It was not till viewing a friend’s Instagram story post that alarm bells started to ring.

“My friend was on a university programme in London and they had to return to Singapore earlier. And she had tested positive,” said the 25-year-old woman, who requested not to be named.

“I felt that I needed to ask her what were her symptoms. It was a sore throat, cough and loss of smell and taste … I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’”

She and her husband had recently returned from London, where they were based as he pursued further studies. And days before returning home, they had recovered from what seemed like a mild bout of the common cold.

“The weather was very cold those few days, it was raining as well. We were just very cold,” she said. “My body felt warm but I didn’t feel too terrible. We just didn’t go out and stayed at home … I told my husband that since we didn’t go to the crowded places in London, we should be fine.”

And when it came to social distancing, the couple had taken all the necessary precautions. Not attending the usual church service, not heading out farther than the neighbourhood, not going out to crowded areas.

A woman walks past graffiti on a wall in Brentford, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“I felt that it was impossible that I would have gotten COVID-19,” added the 25-year-old husband, who also requested not to be named. “We had been socially responsible in the last one or two weeks before coming home … The swift recovery made it clear to me that it was just a common cold or something like that.”

So when the cold disappeared, they thought little of it. 

“There was no fever, no flu, no anything,” she said. “He only had a cough … a kind of cough once in a couple of hours. For me, when I had my flu, I couldn’t smell and taste, so I thought that was normal for somebody who had just recovered from the flu.”

While serving her Stay Home Notice after returning from the UK, what was perplexing for the wife was that her sense of taste and smell still had not returned.

“It was frustrating because my body felt well, but I just couldn’t smell and taste,” she said. “At that point our bodies felt perfectly fine, but we didn’t know there was a virus inside of us.

“It got a bit worrying because I felt that it wasn’t normal to lose both these senses. I was wondering if it was a nerve issue … I could stand beside my husband frying garlic, and I still couldn’t smell anything.”

After the conversation with her friend on Instagram, things started to click into place. “I felt very worried after that because out of her three symptoms, the both of us could identify to one of each,” she said. 

The couple decided to call the People’s Association and an ambulance swiftly arrived to take them to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).

NCID during COVID-19

Medical staff preparing pre-screening procedures at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases building at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore on Jan 31, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman) 

“Everything was done in a professional manner – they were completely suited up because they had to come into the house,” she recalled. “I was very scared the neighbours might see it. People are rather unsettled at the moment and I was afraid that they might ostracise us or that they would be living in fear.”

After thorough questioning and tests at NCID, the couple were sent home and told to wait on the results of the tests.

Her husband was later found to be COVID-19 positive and admitted to NCID, while his wife was found to be negative.

“The reason why we wanted to get tested is because he was convinced that I would be positive and he would be negative, we didn’t expect that he would be the one who would have been tested positive,” she said.

But at the same time, she wasn’t convinced that she was COVID-19 free.

“I didn’t feel very confident of the results based on my symptoms,” she said. “At that point of time there were more articles online about the loss of smell and taste, how that is a crucial symptom for the virus. So I really thought I had it.”

After making a few calls and explaining her situation, she was eventually sent to the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) for testing on Mar 26. This time, she was warded, even before the tests results were out. 

Khoo Teck Phuat

File photo of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. (Photo: Facebook/Khoo Teck Puat Hospital)  

“I remember there were three people with me as I was on the wheelchair to be transported to the ward,” she recalled. “One in front of me, one was pushing me and one was behind me … One of them would call on the walkie-talkie to say that they were in the process of transferring me up and told everybody in my path to clear. 

“I was quite impressed that just to transfer one patient they had to coordinate with so many departments, it wasn’t just about preparing the ward itself.”

At 6.30am the next morning, she was informed that she had tested positive. “The doctor said he suspected that I was nearing the tail-end of the infection, but because the virus was still in me, I still have to be here as you can still spread it to people,” she said. 

For the next few days, she was in a ward by herself, with nothing but a phone and a charger – there had been no opportunity for her to return home from KTPH after being tested.

“The days felt very long and there was nobody to talk to,” she recalled. “What I could do was text and call people, some times make video calls … It was a very weird feeling, even though I was digitally connected to people, it felt that I was isolated as well.”

“Some days we do feel that it would be nice to walk around and catch a breather, or have the freedom to do something that you like,” added her husband, who was later transferred to Gleneagles Hospital. “But we know why we are here.”

But to know that her husband was also able to understand what she was going through also helped, she said. “We could understand the discomfort of the swab for example, these were the kind of small things that only we could relate,” she said.

The support of friends and family have been encouraging throughout the couple’s stay in the hospital, said the husband.

“You see the community of family and friends banding around you and sending you messages of encouragement,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a bit funny because you feel totally fine but people are sending you all these things! But the intent is very encouraging.”

The kindness and professionalism of the nurses was also something that stood out.

“Sometimes I couldn’t recognise the nurses, because when they came in they were masked (in full PPE), so I tried to remember them by their voices,” she said. “One of them left me a note and I was really touched. It’s really the fact that you are so void of physical contact that something like that made me very happy.

“When the nurses would come in, they would also ask how my husband was … It was quite nice that they talked to me and not just did their job.”

After five nights in an isolation ward and two consecutive negative swab tests, she could finally be discharged. Her sense of smell and taste have not returned fully, but doctors have assured her that she was virus free and this would come with time.

“Losing my sense of taste and smell – it was something that I never ever thought I would lose, until you realise how important it is in your daily life,” she said.

But with her husband still currently warded, it has been a bittersweet feeling to have been discharged.

“It would have been nice to come out together,” she explained. “Even though I know he has no symptoms now, I know that the fact that he is still testing positive, which is cause of concern.”

Said her husband, who has now been in hospital for over a week: “The thing that is unsettling is that we do not know the extent of its spread among the community because of the mildness of some of the symptoms.”

“Being tested positive for COVID-19, you really don’t know when you can be discharged,” added his wife. “You don’t know if your next swab test will be negative or positive.”

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