I was convinced that my dad would die and then I’d die soon after.
One of the hardest parts of being a 17-year-old COVID long hauler is overhearing other people make light of the pandemic. You can imagine how horrified I was when a kid in my class tested positive for COVID last year, and my classmates joked that we should all get sick on purpose so we could stay home. If being on your deathbed from a virus is your idea of a day off, then I feel sorry for you. As someone who had COVID, isolated, and watched their loved one fighting for their life, I wouldn’t recommend it.
In March of 2020, I became ill with COVID, along with my dad. He was working in a grocery store. We knew he might be exposed, but my parents did their best to protect me because my long battle with asthma made me more vulnerable to getting sick. We lived as quarantined a life as we could, sanitizing every grocery item and not seeing friends. But in spite of taking every precaution we could, I contracted COVID. I was 15, and I thought I was going to die.
My family hung sheets up around the room where I tried to recover. My eyes felt hot and my head was constantly throbbing. I was constantly alone and couldn’t stop coughing, making breathing difficult. I was convinced that my dad would die and then I’d die soon after. Though I didn’t die, I still haven’t fully recovered from the horror and helplessness I felt in the days after we got sick. And I still haven’t fully recovered from COVID itself.
My life has become a complete 180 of what it was before COVID.
Almost two years later, I still have long-term lung damage and COVID-related health issues that have landed me back in the hospital multiple times. Every time it happens, I feel enraged first and then terrified that I won’t ever be able to live a normal life. Before I got sick with COVID, I was a dancer who spent hours each day practicing and planning new dance routines. The dance studio was my happy place. I was a wrestler, too, but now it’s too dangerous for me to participate. My lung capacity has diminished so severely that I’m still unable to take deep breaths. COVID took my happy places away from me, wreaking havoc on my life and leaving only pieces of what I had before.
Life with COVID now has me afraid to be in large crowds and hesitant to move away from home for college. I used to want to move far away, but now I can’t imagine going through sickness alone without my family. Instead of thinking long and hard about moving to a big city, I’m now thinking of how to explain my medical history to new doctors. I’m afraid to venture out to places I’ve never been before, and I’m anxious about mask-wearing policies and vaccination statuses. My life has become a complete 180 of what it was before COVID.
The good news is that most of my classmates are getting vaccinated. But some are holding out. Particularly with the news of the “milder” omicron variant, some teens I know are shrugging off COVID risk: walking around the mall without a mask and saying things like “We’re all going to get sick eventually.”
Comments like that make me want to scream — if only my scarred lungs allowed it.
More than a third of people who contract COVID experience symptoms for up to six months after their initial diagnosis, according to a September 2021 study. Long haulers, like me, struggle with chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, and headaches, among other symptoms. At its worst, long haulers face severe, long-term lung and heart issues. COVID has reshaped who I am during some of the most pivotal years of my life, just when I’m beginning to figure out who I want to be.
So, when I hear other students say that COVID isn’t a big deal or claim that it won’t affect them, what I hear is that experiences like mine, or my dad’s, or millions of Americans who’ve been sick or died during the pandemic don’t really matter.
My experience means I know how important it is that everyone eligible for the COVID vaccine gets vaccinated. I got vaccinated in April of 2021 and boosted in January of this year. It’s the best thing we can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and others in our communities. It’s a privilege to have access to life-saving health care like the vaccine and simply choose not to take it because you think you’re unlikely to get too sick.
Vaccines have been available for teenagers since May 2021, but a frightening number of kids and teens aren’t vaccinated yet. According to an analysis of CDC data from Kaiser Health News, only around 17% of kids aged 5 to 11 have gotten the shot as of early December 2021, and vaccination rates are dropping. Meanwhile, just 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated as of late December 2021, per the CDC.
Shouldn’t the risk of getting your friends sick scare you?
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 7 out of 100 teens live with asthma, like me. Kids with asthma or other pre-existing conditions are 12 times more likely to die from COVID than their peers without other health issues. I knew my asthma made me high risk when I contracted COVID, and then I learned quickly how serious the virus could be. Over the course of my illness, there were multiple times that it felt like I couldn’t breathe, terrifying my family and myself. Maybe most teens won’t experience my kind of life-altering COVID case, but others — even without preexisting conditions — may get seriously ill or die. Shouldn’t the risk of getting your friends sick scare you?
And outside of our friends, we know when kids and teens contract COVID, it also puts our loved ones at risk. A few studies suggest that increased cases of COVID-19 among young people are often followed quickly by outbreaks among older adults, meaning that young people can be major transmitters. My dad contracted COVID and ended up in the hospital, fighting for his life for days. He was so convinced he was going to die, he tried to put a will together from his hospital bed. We couldn’t see him in the hospital, so we just kept waiting, never sure if a doctor would call us with good news or a death announcement. The waiting was terrifying. Thankfully, both my dad and myself pulled through, but not everyone is so lucky.
We should do everything we can to demand that our lawmakers in Washington, D.C., support policies like paid leave for all, which would help families struggling with long COVID avoid financial ruin. In the meantime, teens also need to do everything we can to avoid contracting COVID and spreading it to others, and that starts with getting vaccinated. You can find local vaccination sites at vaccines.gov to get your shot. And if you’re younger than 18, you may even be able to get vaccinated without your parents’ consent. In eight states plus Washington, D.C., teenage minors can get the COVID vaccination on their own in certain circumstances.
Particularly as the omicron variant causes yet another spike in cases, we all must get vaccinated. The stakes are too high to wait until COVID hits close to home — or hits us.
Heather Castro is a senior in high school and a California-based member of COVID Survivors for Change.