What’s it like having COVID-19? One COPHer describes firsthand experience

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Azzam Albashir, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) health sciences major, was enjoying his spring break in Canada when COVID-19 brought the world to its knees. Albashir and his traveling companion decided to cut their visit short, before borders were closed, and head home to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where their families lived. 

“Both our parents are physicians, so we knew not to take this virus lightly,” said Albashir, who plans on graduating in spring 2021. “Unfortunately, when the news broke out in Canada about how dangerous this virus was, people went crazy buying as much hand sanitizers, masks and gloves as they could. That led to a huge shortage and forced my best friend and I to head back home with only half a bottle of hand sanitizer to share between the two of us.”

Azzam Albashir, a health sciences major, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March. (Photo courtesy of Azzam Albashir)

Once home, Albashir followed protocol and self-quarantined, isolating himself in his bedroom and using his own bathroom. But four days after arriving in the UAE, he started developing COVID-19 symptoms. “I had a fever, sore throat, bad cough, frequent headaches, diarrhea and I lost my sense of taste and smell,” said Albashir. “With my father being a physician, it wasn’t hard to figure out that I had COVID.” 

Albashir was ultimately hospitalized. “Just like everyone else, I received hydroxychloroquine as a medical treatment and the side effects of the drug were pretty bad. I was already tired from being diagnosed with COVID, but the drug made me even more tired. I always wanted to sleep. I also took potassium, as I had low levels due to the vomiting and constant diarrhea.” 

Albashir, in the hospital in the UAE, wearing a pulse oximeter to test the amount of oxygen in his blood. (Photo courtesy of Albashir)

After 10 days in the hospital, Albashir was symptom-free and transferred to a hotel where he had to self-isolate until his COVID swabs came back negative. Eventually he was allowed to return home under an isolation-at-home program instituted by the government. 

“People released home on this specific program were required to wear two watches, one from the police department and the other from the ministry of health,” explained Albashir, who plans on pursuing a career in healthcare administration. “That way they could track me and make sure I was indeed following the rules and staying at home. They would send nurses to the house occasionally in order to give me the swab test until I got two negatives in a row and I could be released from the program. They also offered to pick up and wash my laundry, take my personal trash and provide three meals a day, just like at the hotel and hospital.”

Despite the self-quarantining, COVID-19 swept through Albashir’s family. The virus spared his two younger brothers and their live-in nanny; his sister, while positive, was asymptomatic. But his parents did not fare as well. “My father was sent to the ICU. His lungs were infected and he had trouble breathing and speaking,” said Albashir. “He was on a ventilator and it was very frightening to say the least. My mother’s condition was not that bad, but she also had difficulty breathing and needed oxygen.”

The friend with whom Albashir was traveling also tested positive for COVID. The two think they may have contracted the virus during a 1.5-hour cab ride from the airport in Dubai to their homes. Albashir noted that the cab driver, who was not wearing a face mask (although one wasn’t mandatory at the time) periodically coughed. “And the air-conditioning was on and the cab did not allow for any social distancing,” he said.

As a student of public health, Albashir has nothing but praise for how the country has handled the pandemic. There was thorough contact tracing, adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals and plenty of available testing. “The only thing I believe they did wrong was that they hospitalized the majority of COVID patients at first and flooded the system,” Albashir commented. “A month or so later, they realized that it wasn’t mandatory for everyone to be in the hospital, especially if they weren’t in critical condition. There are no complaints on my end, though, as everything was free of charge for me even though I am neither a resident nor a citizen of the country. They took good care of me and my family, and I’m always going to be grateful for the country I grew up in.”

What does Albashir, now on the road to recovery, want you to know about the virus? “Do not take it lightly,” he said. “Educate yourself and those around you. If you or someone in your family tests positive, do not let it beat you mentally. Stay optimistic and STAY SAFE!!!!”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health