When having a stick shoved up your nose is the right thing to do.

A week ago, I had had a ghastly 12 hours of headaches and horrible vomiting; shuddering and freezing cold, I repeatedly spewed astonishing quantities of awful stuff into whatever receptacles I could reach in time.  The good news was that I never had a high fever — in fact, my temperature stayed low, down to 94.6 at one point.  But for days before that, I’d had a dry cough, and had felt nauseated, so whatever I had wasn’t food poisoning. I had to know whether I’d come down with the obvious.

Sick Jilly 5-28-20

I dreaded the test, but my boyfriend and I both thought we both should get tested (me because of the symptoms, him because of his proximity to my symptoms). After too much time spent searching, trying and failing to reach different numbers, and filling in online forms — and complaining to each other that it shouldn’t be this hard! — we managed to make two appointments. Mine was today, Thursday the 28th.

I had heard that the swab was awful. One test subject reported that her nurse had said something like, “I’m going to be reaching back to your eyeball.” But Governor Cuomo got tested live on TV in the middle of his briefing, which made me admire Cuomo even more. New York’s governor made a few nervous jokes, but then bore up without flinching as the nurse swabbed his nose. He didn’t even sit down!

His swabbing lasted only a few seconds, which seemed tolerable. I’m not a princess, and I’ve certainly had uncomfortable experiences that have lasted longer than his nose-probe did (viz., breaking an ankle in Hawaii and walking on it; viz., throwing up bright yellow liquid laced with olive-green goop, and then dry-heaving through tears, last week). At one point last Thursday I was naked on all fours in my bedroom, vomiting into a plastic salad spinner, when the phone rang – and I had to get it. Relatively, a long Q-tip to the schnozz might not be so bad.

The test was held in the gym of Santa Rosa High School, and the hand-drawn signs in two languages saying “COVID TESTING, appointment only” lent the event the festive, playful urgency of a senior-class fundraiser. As I parked, taking my choice of about a thousand empty spaces, another masked, middle-aged woman got out of her car and headed towards her test. She looked pretty grim — or at least her eyes and forehead seemed that way. Most people seem expressionless in face coverings. I sat in the car for a few minutes to give her — and any virus particles that might have flowed in her wake – time to pass.

Inside the hot black car, I removed from my person all items I didn’t absolutely need. I kept my reading glasses around my neck, put on my biggest sunglasses, and loaded my pockets with hand sanitizer and paper napkins. The word “surreal” came to me, and even though that word has been so overused lately it’s losing its significance, there was something strange and inhuman about sitting there, alone in a mask, with no other person in sight, waiting for a test to determine whether or not I have a virus that might, possibly, kill me and which has killed 100,000 other Americans (so far).

My boyfriend worried that I’d have to wait in a line to get tested.  We had visions of sick people coughing on each other from (just barely) six feet apart, and if there had been such a line I was prepared to give the whole thing a miss. But in fact, the doorway opened into a hallway with only one person in it, a tall, masked young man who waved me in.

He advised me to have my patient number (which I’d gotten online) and a regular ID ready. Down the dim hallway, I could see a few people milling about, so I asked if I could wait outdoors on the porch. He said yes, but by the time I’d taken those ten steps back to the fresh air, the person before me had moved through, and it was inexorably my turn.

The gym was a classic public-school sports area with wooden floors and high, echoey ceilings. A huge clear shower curtain hung in front of a desk, behind which two women were sitting. I was asked to stand on an X several feet in front of the barrier, on which were more signs saying not to touch it (or, I presumed, anything else) for my own safety.

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They didn’t have to tell me twice. Behind my mask and sunglasses, I was keeping my sanitized hands to myself and trying not to breathe. The people on the other side of the barriers were all masked and wearing facial barriers, so there were two plastic and two cloth barriers between their breath and my own, but I still didn’t want unnecessary conversation. The woman asked for my patient ID, birth date, and name. She didn’t check my driver’s license, so I wondered why I had been asked to bring it, but I was glad of one less thing to handle.

She directed me to my left, where another woman was coming around a room divider, beckoning. This young woman was not only masked and shielded but decked out in full haz-mat gear, or at least the disposable version thereof: she had on a crinkled, peach-colored suit that even covered her shoes. It went up to her neck and down to her wrists, covering all her regular clothing and most of her skin. Also, she had gloves on. Despite the wrapping, she made encouraging eye contact and confirmed my name in a friendly way.

Stepping towards her, I tried to leave six feet of distance between us, but apparently she didn’t think that was necessary. She kept waiting for me to catch up as I stalled and back-pedaled. In this way, like a parent leading a recalcitrant toddler, she walked me to the area where tests were administered. That section was set up like an airport security line, with two separate chutes for people to walk down. I was, happily, the only patient there.

I was handed off to a petite, pretty, young Asian nurse, or at least someone who seemed like a nurse. And I don’t care if it is stereotyping, I was relieved: if a person was going to be shoving medical equipment into my orifices I was happy to assume that the person was smart, sensitive, and professional. Also, irrationally, I felt comforted that she had very small hands. They looked dexterous.

She let me sit down in an old wooden chair. I perched on the edge, making sure my skin didn’t make contact. The nurse asked if I’d had the test before, and I said no. I added, a bit nervously, “I’m a bit nervous.”

She showed me the sterile, plastic-sheathed swab she’d be using and said she’d be inserting it into the nasal cavity. “We don’t have to do both sides,” she said, and asked if I had a preference as to which nostril she used.

I considered. My left side is stronger. I said, “Left.”

I asked her how long it would take.

“Oh!” Her voice was warm and reassuring. “It’s less than ten minutes.”

Hoping she’d meant “seconds,” I giggled.

“Seconds!” she said. In a comforting gesture, she reached to my shoulder before she stopped herself. Her gloved hand had almost, but not quite, touched me.

It was time. I asked if I should take my mask down, a stupid question, but she nodded without condescension. I removed it, being careful to touch it only by the elastics.

Smoothly, the little swab went in and it hurt. I started counting backwards from ten, to give my mind something to focus on. But counting couldn’t distract me from feeling something huge and dry ferreting deep inside my face. I reached “zero” in my mind and was distressed that the swab was still there, but then it was gone.

“Done!” the nurse said.

I stood up. The left side of my nose felt burnt and raw. Snot trickled down the back of my throat, there were tears in my eyes, and I felt nauseated. I thanked her and left, my left hand pressed along the line from eye to nostril.

Walking back to my car, breathing on the right side of my nose, I saw a man in a mask parking. I felt sorry for him, but also wished I could reassure him that he’d be okay. My entire experience, from walking into the gym to walking out, had taken less than three minutes. I hadn’t touched anything, and everyone had been kind.

Jesus, my nose hurt though. The scraped feeling was similar to a pap smear, but it lingered like a burn (the lining of the nostrils has way more nerve endings than the cervix, duh). But if the pain during the swab was a 6, it was down to a 3 by the time I’d reached second gear.

Driving home, I felt the strangeness of it all: the masks, the shields, the oddness of millions people going to get a test for something that three months ago we’d never heard of. It wasn’t surreal anymore: it was just sad.

I cried some, but then I stopped crying and felt relieved. I was glad I’d gone through with it, because soon I’d know (or at least have some indication) whether what I’d suffered through was the virus, and whether or not I’m likely to pass it to anyone else. I was hoping that yes, I would test positive, so I’d know I wasn’t likely to end up on a respirator, at least not this time around.

I understand of course that the test sometimes has incorrect results, and that even if I hadn’t had Covid-19 at the moment my swab were taken, I could have inhaled it on my way back to my car. Yet I felt that I’d done the right thing, and that I was part of a large group of people who were doing the right thing not for our own individual sakes, but for each other, for the whole community.

I got tested for my boyfriend Anthony and his mother, for our friends and their children, and for my neighbors in the FrogSong co-housing community in Cotati. I got tested for everyone I see every day and everyone that every one of those people comes into contact with. I got tested for people I don’t know and will never know, in the further, spreading circles of friendship, closeness, and connection. Everyone I touch touches others whom they know, the human linkage forming circles and networks and labyrinths, spirals and loops, long corridors and high-ceilinged rooms and wide-open spaces that include my friends in Florida and New Hampshire, England and Australia, and everyone, everywhere on earth — including, of course, you.

I got tested for you. And I hope you’ll get tested for me.