The fear of being sick

As the number of coronavirus cases across the world nears 1.5 million, it is clear we are all living in unfamiliar times and trying to cope with fear and confinement as best we can. One thing that I am sure paralyses many of us with fear is the idea of us and our loved ones getting sick. This is what happened to me two months ago…
As some of you know from my previous articles in Monaco Life or social media, I was chosen last year to be part of the eXXpedition crew to sail and research plastics in the ocean between Galapagos and Easter Island. The navigation in the Pacific was taking place from 15th February until 4th March 2020. It was an incredible opportunity, as I was selected from more than 10,000 candidates and the only representative from Monaco. I spent most of last year preparing for this voyage, creating the Ocean Amazon platform to engage as many people as possible in following the adventure. I planned to start my trip on 2nd February (which was 0202.2020 – what a memorable date!) taking me to Ecuador, spending few days in Quito and then arriving at Galapagos where the Ocean Amazon adventure was truly set to begin.
As the departure date was nearing, I remember being so careful about staying healthy and boosting my immunity. In January I didn’t travel anywhere; I turned down friends who were inviting me snowboarding as I didn’t want to risk not being healthy for my trip.
But just two days before I left, I went to the Monaco Yacht Club gym for one last training (yes, I wanted to be in top form too) and afterwards, a few member friends insisted I have a drink with them. They wanted to celebrate my upcoming trip and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The workout was intense (thank you Bouba) and I was still very sweaty and had no other clothes to change into, so I we went straight to the bar and had few drinks. By the time I got home and took a shower, changing in to dry clothes, it was too late. I realised this the next day when I felt feverish and had a strong pain in my chest. This was also the day before I left! My friend had to help me pack for my five-week voyage as I was struggling, feeling sick and weak. I took cold medicine, some homeopathic remedies too and hoped for the best for my trip.
I left on 02.02.2020 right on schedule, smiling for social media and my sponsors and friends who supported me in this adventure, but I could feel my body struggling with every single move I was making. I flew from Nice to Paris and then boarded the 13-hour flight to Quito, Ecuador. You know how these long haul flights are, you never get enough water, the air is too cold, it’s hard to find a comfortable position to rest for too long. By the time I landed, I was sick beyond words. It is a blur to me now, how I got from the airport to the hotel, the check-in and to sleep. All I remember is waking up at about 4am that night in a wet bed because of my fever, with strong chest pain and almost suffocating.

Quito is the world capital with the highest altitude at 2,800m. I could hardly breathe and my voice was so weak. As I was becoming aware of my condition, I knew that I needed to call a doctor. I remember going through my symptoms and then suddenly becoming paralysed with fear, as I realised that I tick all the boxes for coronavirus. At the time, the virus was pretty much contained to Wuhan and only few cases were starting to emerge in Europe. It was clear to me what made me sick (yeah, basically my stupidity to carry on with wet clothes) and not an infection caused by a virus.
But in my mind, I could already see a doctor examining me and, as my Spanish is not that great, his alarm bells would be ringing: just travelled by plane from Europe, fever, chest pain, influenza, difficulty breathing. CORONA! And being zealous, he would organise for me to be taken on a 14 day quarantine. I could imagine the hazmat suits arriving, the ambulance taking me to an isolated unit of a hospital, missing the trip of a lifetime, for which I had prepared a whole year.
I didn’t know at the time that there were tests which could tell if I was carrying the virus or not, so only judging by the symptoms I was so afraid that a doctor would conclude I was sick and change my life. Of course, if indeed I was carrying the virus, my rightful place would be in quarantine and not in contact with people I could contaminate.
I was in hell for the next few hours, physically and also tormented by my fear of being declared Ecuador’s first corona case. I did call my friend in Monaco and shared what I was going through and was comforted. This helped a lot.
The next day, I was supposed to go for lunch with the dean of the University of San Francisco in Quito (USFQ) and a couple of professors of the environmental masters program. One of the goals of my voyage was to connect with the university and hopefully create a bridge with the University of Monaco (IUM) – of which I am an alumni – and engage students to apply for the Ocean Protection Challenge.
Of course, in the morning I sent a message letting them know I was feeling sick and needed to cancel. Diego Quiroga, the dean of Scientific Programs and External Affairs of USFQ, immediately offered to send a doctor from their medical campus clinic to examine me. Thanks to him, not only did I have a thorough examination from one of their top doctors in the clinic, but was also given oxygen for few hours.
Of course, I was given the clear with respect to corona, and administered normal cold medication. By the next day I was already feeling better, no more fever and gaining in strength, allowing me to properly visit the campus and learn more about the extraordinary achievements of USFQ. I am truly grateful for the generosity and kindness of everyone I met there and the care and professionalism shown to me.
Now, being confined at home in Monaco and speaking on the phone with friends, we often talk about our fears of either getting sick, or our dear ones becoming casualties of this invisible killer. I look back at my experience in Quito and the important lessons I learned:

  1. I focused on what was the best course of action and the immediate things I could do.
  2. There will always be amazing humans, total strangers or friends who will help.
  3. Acknowledge that being afraid is normal, it is what makes us human. But staying in fear is paralysing and you cannot focus. Back to first lesson.

Take good care of yourselves, keep well and healthy!
Irina aka Ocean Amazon
Please follow my @oceanamazon profile on Instagram and Facebook if you want to learn more about my voyage.