Mirvat El Lahib was in paradise, yet she was struggling to breathe.
The 23-year-old London woman was on a trip with her sister-in-law Shaimaa El Lahib and eight other women, looking to unwind during March break at a seaside resort in the Dominican Republic.
Her sudden shortness of breath appeared with three days left to go before she and her friends were to return home to London, Ont.
“I started having shortness of breath at night a little,” she said. “I just thought it was the weather there because it was very hot and humid.”
When they returned to Canada on March 19, the women followed the recommendations of medical authorities for all Canadians returning from abroad at the start of the pandemic by going into quarantine together at the house of a friend who had also been on the trip.
‘She was like, ‘you have food poisoning”
Space was tight, so Mirvat and Shaimaa ended up sharing a bed. A couple of days later, Shaimaa started feeling sick.
“My symptoms, they started two days after I came back from the Dominican,” Shaimaa said. They included fatigue, nausea, dizziness and excruciating pain radiating from her stomach, lower back and kidneys.
Meanwhile, Mirvat had a mild headache and shortness of breath.
“My shortness of breath did get worse and me and my sister-in-law were sharing a bed in the quarantine. She would wake me up in the middle of the night and say ‘hey you’re not really breathing.'”
“It was such a weird experience,” she said. “It only happened at night, during the day I was fine.”
The women began to suspect they might have COVID-19. Eventually, Shaimaa’s symptoms got so bad she had to be driven to a walk-in clinic, where she explained she had just returned from overseas and what she was feeling.
The clinic didn’t think she had the virus because she didn’t have a fever.
“She was like, ‘you have food poisoning,'” Shaimaa said. “I told her ‘it’s unbelievable, I can’t stand up.’ The pain wasn’t normal. It was so bad. I hadn’t eaten in two days.”
Shaimaa was given nausea pills so she could keep her food down and was sent on her way. Unsatisfied with the diagnosis, she was driven to the COVID-19 assessment centre at Oakridge Arena, where she was again turned away because she didn’t have a fever.
“He was like ‘no I don’t think you have all the symptoms and we’re low on swabs,'” she said. “I told him I had to get tested and he was like ‘no you’re fine you have to go home, you have food poisoning.'”
In March, Ontario was rationing tests and saving them mostly for health-care providers and the most vulnerable due to a lack of supplies.
Shaimaa started arguing with the man, explaining that she had just returned from an overseas trip and now she was bedridden and in inexplicable pain.
“My body hurts, all my body parts are hurting me, it was so bad. I was sleeping in the car and I could barely raise my head to talk to him,” she said.
Eventually, she conceded to the health professional and, because she was told she didn’t have COVID-19 twice, she went home.
“Two hours later I start having a fever,” she said.
When she tested positive, she couldn’t believe it
Meanwhile Mirvat also went home. Had she known she had the virus, it would have been on her 10th day of symptoms that she lost her sense of taste and smell.
“I couldn’t taste anything whether it’s sweet, bitter, sour. I was like, okay, I don’t know what I’m eating right now.”
Mirvat called her doctor and explained her situation and her doctor ordered tests immediately.
“They did test me because of my taste and smell and because I was out of the country and five days later I got the results and they were positive,” she said.
At first Mirvat didn’t believe it. She asked them to double-check her name and age and when the health-care worker on the other end of the phone confirmed everything, she was stunned.
“I’d seen so many people, but I wasn’t aware I had the symptoms or that I had COVID-19,” she said. “I’ve had a worse cold.”
She thought of all the people she’d seen and potentially exposed with the virus, parents, friends, her newborn niece and her sister-in-law Shaimaa.
By the time Shaimaa found out about Mirvat’s positive test, her 48-year-old mother and six-year-old son had also started showing symptoms. Shaimaa said she called the assessment centre and gave them an earful.
“I went to the Oakridge centre and this guy sends me back home and I thought I had nothing, so I went back home and now its my son and it’s my mom,” she said.
In the end, Shaimaa tested positive for the virus.
“I’d like to share [my story] with people because maybe people have the symptoms and they don’t know and if they have it they can stay away from their families because of what happened with my son,” said Shaimaa.
“That’s what’s weird about corona, you don’t know when you have it,” she said. “When I came home I felt fine. I thought I was good, that I didn’t have anything.”
Earlier this month, the Middlesex-London Health Unit said it was expanding criteria for tests at assessment centres and encouraging people to visit them because they had more resources – including staff and kits – to test people.