JUST 10 days ago, I underwent an RT-PCR test along with some colleagues. It wasn’t required because I didn’t have any symptoms to begin with. It was more of an act of leadership mixed with a bit of smugness and confidence, as I always thought of myself as the last person on earth to catch the virus. I was being very careful, or so I thought. Just two days after the test, my early morning silence was broken by a Viber message and an attached screenshot of a document with my name on it, in screaming red, all capital letters that read “POSITIVE”.
I was in denial and took it lightly at first. Minutes later, the truth bore down on me. I have the disease and I was afraid for my family whom I was supposed to protect.
As soon as I told everyone the news, I received a string of calls, social media posts and private messages from friends. Some were very encouraging, even sympathetic, telling me to stay strong, to leave everything to God and not lose hope. Others were not so kind, their words full of resentment, blame, just a tad short of “good riddance” that I felt violated and weighed down by insults.
In my line of work, I’m used to being called a lot of things. Name it, I’ve heard it. In one ear, out the other. But in my delicate state, I couldn’t help taking offense at the vitriol that was being thrown at me from all sides. It’s doubly hard to dodge issues when you’re fighting an unseen, malevolent enemy with a toothpick and will power. If I could shoot this virus between its evil eyes, I would have done it long ago before it had the chance to spread its venom on the world. Yes, I felt angry and at that time, my anger was justified.
Feeling helpless, I made calls to people I never thought I would ask personal favors from. To my pleasant surprise, there was no judgment. Instead, they reached out to me with genuine compassion and concern and offered to help in any way they could. I had their support and it felt like a huge load was taken off my shoulders. When you’re in distress and at your lowest, these small gestures make a world of difference.
I was picked up at home by a van with a crew, including the driver, clad in full Covid battle gear (PPE). It felt weird sitting in the back of the unlit van with just the occasional thud, the dull sound of the van’s engine and the occasional human voices of the faceless crew for company. No facial expressions to draw emotions from, as if emotions had a place in the uncertainty I was faced with. The sound of my own heartbeat was very reassuring and I found myself saying a prayer.
At around 10pm, we arrived at the facility. It was well-lit but everything around it was pitch-black. The full length of the experience was like a scene cut out of a post-apocalyptic movie —- dark, cold, terrifying, surreal. Minutes later, we were taken to our quarters. I felt amused having to sleep in a room where people indulge in earthly “endeavors”, a room that has seen too many acts of infidelity, lust and, on the positive side, love. A UV light would have come in handy.
Beggars can’t be choosers. I told myself , “walay arte-arte sa army”. I declared that this was where God wanted me to be, where I will get the help I need, recover and do some introspection. Whether I like it or not, I am no longer my old self. This experience has changed me already and I intend to come out of it bent in places, but definitely not broken.
Mr. Congeniality, food and friends
Day 1 was a thrill. The sun was up and I felt cheerful. I checked my surroundings and saw the wide and airy open spaces perfect for jogging, good landscaping and a perfect spot for plane-spotting. To take the edge off my stay here, I knew I had to make friends. I had a colleague who also happened to be a fraternity brother with me, but I was apprehensive that we might end up falling for each other if I didn’t lay my eyes on other people. That doesn’t sound too good, does it? So I met Patient R, a frontliner, who introduced me to his fellow frontliner Patient J and later to patient C and to another patient R, a fellow Atenean. These guys were positive themselves, positive with COVID-19 and positive that we will all get out of this somehow. We shared stories of what happened to each of us and how we got there. In the end, we shared one story — discrimination.
The hardest part perhaps of being infected is the fact that too many people know too much about the disease yet choose to be uneducated, even ignorant, on how they treat people who have the dreaded disease. I’m no doctor so I won’t preach further about it, but I have common sense telling me that it’s not as deadly as we think it is. Wear a mask and a face shield and the chances of getting it are very slim. Once you have it, be a good patient. Take your vitamins, arm your immune system. People aren’t crazy enough to get the disease intentionally. I remember my boss saying “who wants to get it in the first place?”, his wisdom lingered in my mind through the whole ordeal.
Going back, it was nice to have a support group to share experiences with. We may have come from different walks of life but out there, we were among friends and equals. That row of rooms sheltered people whose sickness stripped them of their masks and pretenses. It was just about humanity.
I know these guys won’t forget me for giving them a bottle of ice-cold Coke once in a while, a welcome treat given the circumstances. Good thing I have a good set of friends and relatives who never turned their back on me when I asked for help, as my family back home was under strict quarantine (think guards positioned near our house) and were forbidden to get out. Me and my “co-positives” were blessed to have hot meals sent to us nightly. I have been on a low-carb diet for a year but what the heck. Rice is inevitable in the face of pork binagoongan, beef sinigang, kadyos-baboy-langka (KBL), burger steak and spareribs, among others. Not to mention the groceries, enough to sustain you for over a week, with cans of drinks and packs of chips enough to cause a mild UTI. As for the food served by the City Government, it was not hospital food. The meals were well-planned, flavorful, nutritious and satisfying. Made confinement much more bearable. I could only imagine how much the City Government spends daily for people in isolation and in hospitals. So don’t talk to me about how a minor flaw in the Davao QR program and the minor inconveniences make you curse the City Government to high heavens. Who are we to judge? Wake me up when you find a perfect government.
The doctors, nurses and their support staff were a sight to behold. They were like the teletubbies walking around the facility three to four times daily to serve our meals, check our vital signs, clean our rooms and do other nursing stuff. We may not see their covered faces, but their big hearts showed through and shone like sunlight. I wish I could do more than thank them profusely for their sacrifices, knowing that they too have families and loved ones back home. Yet, they were there for us, egging us on to beat this disease and easing our suffering while they themselves suffer. With that realization, I have lost all reason to complain. It goes without saying that, during this pandemic and when this is all over, let’s honor their selfless contribution to our country.
With new protocols in place, all of us in the facility were required to spend 10 days in isolation, counting from the day we underwent the swab test.
So yesterday was my last day. Coincidentally, it was Patient C’s birthday the night before, so I had some lechon delivered and distributed in our small temporary community. It was also a despedida of sorts as I was told the morning after that we were going to be discharged.
Looking back at the experience made me renew my faith in God for giving me another chance to savor the greatest gift I could ever ask for — my wife and 2 kids, my 80-year-old mom, my sister and our working student all testing negative for the virus. Not even the news of a Spice Girls reunion or a Coldplay concert in Davao City could ever match that. God indeed is the greatest.
It also gave me reason to believe that being (COVID) positive ends when positivity begins, when you allow hope to prevail amidst all the negativity. Allowing other people’s baggage to weigh you down would not help the process of healing from the disease and the stigma that comes with it. Revenge is tempting but a big waste of time. Karma is now digital, so they say. They will F themselves on their own and you’ll be there to enjoy the show. It’s a natural process.
To everyone who helped me get through the toughest 8 days of my life, my deepest and sincerest thanks. No naming names but you know who you are and I hope to return the favor one of these days, in God’s perfect time.
To Mama, my sisters, my wife Marianne, and kids Izak and Ethan, my purpose for living, thank you for reminding me to stay strong despite my troubled state.
To my Boss, my staff and my DPWH-EARO family, thank you for your prayers and for always checking on me. Ironically, I head the Office COVID-19 Coordinating Group, and I guess what happened to me was leadership-by-example personified.
To my very good friends, old and new, thanks for sending me photos of beer and smokes. You guys sure are helpful. Kidding aside, thank you for your encouragement, mga brods and mares. Also to friends and neighbors who made sure that my family was safe and taken care of in my absence, thank you. They’re still helping out, thank God, as I have chosen to remain in isolation for some time just to be sure.
To my brothers from the Order of Demolay and Freemasonry, thank you all for your kind words. I’m sorry for giving you quite a scare. To those who welcomed me back to the “not so free world” with openness, my sincerest thanks.
And finally to everyone else who prayed for me and wished me well, I guess I wouldn’t have made it out without you. To those whom I inconvenienced, my apologies.
From the deepest recesses of my heart, daghang salamat — Daghan kaayong salamat.
(Dean Ortiz was a former contributor of the Mindanao Times. He is now the Information Officer of DPWH Region XI)
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