‘I was ready to die’: A coronavirus survivor’s diary

San Francisco Chronicle, by Matthias Gafni, June 17, 2020, Illustrations by John Blanchard, Videos by Daymond Gascon
Alone in his home, with no health insurance, Rafael Arias spent weeks battling COVID-19. Awake throughout, he decided to chronicle what he thought might be his finals days in a handwritten journal.

It was late March, and the novel coronavirus had begun to take hold in the Bay Area. On March 22, the day after Arias felt those first symptoms, California postponed jury trials, Hayward opened a free drive-by testing site, and Alameda County, where more than 100 cases had been reported, announced its first COVID-19 death. The week before, the Oakland restaurant where Arias had worked as a barback closed its doors.

As his fever, aches and confusion worsened, Arias sensed he might have the virus. He decided to begin chronicling his days in a handwritten journal, to memorialize what he believed might be a descent to death.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimate that more than 545,000 people in the United States have recovered from bouts of coronavirus. Those suffering the worst cases are frequently intubated and placed into medically induced comas. If they survive, they wake up not remembering the weeks their immune systems battled to keep them alive.

Not Arias.

With no health insurance and alone in his home, he spent weeks fighting for his life, sometimes hallucinating and gasping for air. Through nearly all of it, he was conscious, remembering every painful detail.

“I was alone, so I had nobody to talk to about what to do,” he said. “I was fighting with coronavirus by myself, just me with my ideas.”

His handwritten journal would fill 17 pages. He shared it with The Chronicle, along with an abridged English translation and a letter he wrote to God and his family when he thought he was near death. He also spoke in detail with a reporter about his travails and provided a tour of his 558-square-foot house where his battle with the virus took place.

‘I could not sleep even an hour’

A week into the shelter-in-place order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, a stressed-out Arias walks from his Oakland home by the Eastmont Mall to the nearby marina to relax. I must have food poisoning from last night’s dinner, he thinks, as he sweats uncontrollably. He has no appetite. Tylenol only briefly eases his headache. He begins to record his experience in a red spiral notebook.

Sunday, March 22. When I eat something, I feel nauseous and a pain starts in the front of my head. I go to sleep, but I can’t do it. I feel very uncomfortable. I was sweating without a logical explanation, but I still did not pay much attention so I wouldn’t traumatize myself, since so much news on the television was causing me harm. I just took 600mg of ibuprofen. The hours kept passing and my condition was not improving at all. I worried a bit. I wanted to throw up, but since I hadn’t eaten anything, there was nothing to throw up.

Monday, March 23. I feel a discomfort in my body as if something was happening inside me. I watched television without paying attention to it, waiting for 8 p.m. to take the next pair of Tylenol pills. 500mg did it, but it was only possible to calm the pain for around three hours. I started to worry more and more. I took pills for the flu, thinking that I might be getting the flu, but it wasn’t so. As the night arrived, things got worse.

Tuesday, March 24. I could not sleep even an hour. I made the decision to see the doctor because it was now getting out of control. He thought that I had eaten something in a bad state. He gave me medication and I went to my house. I started to take the medicine, but in reality it did not help me at all. The headache was even more intense, the temperature started to increase more and more, to the point of needing to place wet rags on my head and belly to help it go down a little. More symptoms began: pain in my bones, weakness, lack of coordination, blurry vision, anxiety, and a lack of breathing. On Telemundo, I saw that in Hayward they were doing coronavirus tests, so I decided to go do it the following day.

‘Things cannot get worse’

As his symptoms worsen, Arias spends most of his day in bed. He plans to drive to a coronavirus testing station. He wonders: Could I have the virus?

Wednesday, March 25. Things cannot get worse. I slept for only an hour and I changed my clothes to go take the test at Hayward. I arrived and they did the test because the temperature was higher than 100. The temperature increased more, the head pain was more and more intense, muscular pain was unbearable and the inability to concentrate was more noticeable as the hours went by. My breathing was more short and difficult at every moment. I began to get more scared, the panic began to take hold of me. I wanted to go to the bathroom and was unable to open the door. I felt lost.

As the night fell, my torment began. The pain was so much that the only way I was able to calm the pain was to take a bath and leave the current of hot water over my head for around 30 minutes.

I felt outside myself, as if I was not me. It looked like I was going to faint or stop breathing — I didn’t know which would happen first. Fortunately, none of that happened. Through pills and literally boiling water, I was able to overcome such a difficult situation that was literally killing me.

‘Temperature high, pain indescribable’

It’s about a week after his symptoms hit, and with no food or water and a blazing temperature reaching 104 degrees, Arias begins hallucinating. “I’d close my eyes and see fire and I’d be walking around fire and I’d hear voices in different languages. It was animals and dirty water with sharks. And big tall people walking around me. It felt real. You could feel the fire burn your skin.” In his journal, he scribbles the wrong days of the week. In bed, he cries while clutching a photograph of his deceased parents. He calls 911 to summon paramedics, barely able to punch the numbers on his phone.

Thursday, March 26. Sixth day with the symptoms. Friday, or Holy God, I can’t believe which day because of what I went through. I no longer knew how I felt in that moment. I didn’t even know what to do, I just felt like praying and talking with God — I had no other solution. I talked with God and arrived at peace with him. I asked him for forgiveness for everything and I told him that I was ready — if now was the moment, I accepted it, but I wasn’t going to let go of his hand. I wanted to keep fighting but did not know how. I was running out of hope. It seems like something was overpowering me and was telling me to stop fighting, but I did not want to give up. My breathing was not improving. It was as if something were covering my mouth and was not letting me pull air.

Friday, March 27. Nothing has improved, still. The temperature high, the pain indescribable — it was as if someone was pricking me with needles and turning them around my head. It was as if there were metallic worms walking inside my head. Faith is the only thing that keeps you strong and fighting for everything. But it looked like the virus has the capacity to break your spirit and turn you vulnerable. You don’t want to talk with anyone. It’s as if you’d simply want for this to end.

I have decided to call the emergency services, so I prepare myself mentally. I say goodbye in my mind to my family and friends, I apologize to God. I put on cozy clothes and write a letter. Everything is wrong, everything. I am totally misplaced. My tongue is white as if someone had painted it with a brush, my eyes are lost, my lips are starting to turn blue.

The ambulance arrived and the personnel talked with me. I mentioned that I had taken the coronavirus test but that I still did not have the results. The paramedic recommended that I don’t go to the hospital, because if I wasn’t sick, I would be, since there were already a lot of sick people there and it was chaos to go there.

They left and I got into my house one more time, alone, with all the symptoms to their maximum level. My body was jumping — I think they are called spasms.

I was already giving up, I did not want to fight more. It’s as if my faith were disappearing at each moment. Even so, I did not wish to lose this battle, so I drank water in abundance. Night came, and me without being able to sleep, but a desire to fight against this.

‘I decided to fight’

As his illness worsens, his breathing stops for long intervals, seven to 10 seconds. He stumbles aimlessly about his tiny house, unable to find his room. In moments of despair, he kneels on the floor, his arms stretched into the air, and pleads: “God, help me!”

Saturday, March 28. I’m sweating at all time. My feet hurt, I can’t step on the ground because I feel that someone is biting me with nails. I feel fatal. I lost hope. I said goodbye to all my relatives and I apologized to God. I was ready to die. My breath is really short and bad to the degree that I cannot yawn because I am very sleepy. I have not slept in 6 days. I have eaten nothing.

The symptoms were not getting worse and that was an advantage. I ate a quesadilla. It was an advantage to eat without hunger. Everything remained stable. Maybe I didn’t feel well but at least it was not getting worse and that made me feel good. I asked God not to let me go and to help me. I decided to fight and not let myself be defeated.

Sunday, March 29. Problems with breathing, so I decided to go to the clinic again to see if the doctor could give me something for the respiratory problems. But I arrived and there was no space, so I returned to my house and I kept fighting with what I had at hand. The symptoms began to lower in intensity. Breathing was the most worrying. I still had not received the results of my COVID-19 test. I was waiting for them with anxiety.

Monday, March 30. I have managed to sleep an hour. That makes me happy. The levels have started to drop, maybe 20-25%. I still have temperature, confusion, headache of bones, abdominal pain and leg pain. Worried my breathing is really short. My back is like someone hit me with a baseball bat.

‘Things seem to improve a little’

At a Fruitvale medical clinic, the doctor diagnoses Arias with the coronavirus and treats him. When he returns home, he receives a call from the Alameda County testing site. Even as he learns he has tested positive, his condition improves.

Tuesday, March 31. I have slept 3 hours, which is good for me. When arriving at his office, the doctor notices that I do not have breathing, my color is very bad, my lips are blue. I do not have oxygen when they checked me with the machine. They pass me directly to the office to be put on a respirator. They give me an injection and the doctor begins to give me treatment, suspecting that the coronavirus is in my body. As soon as I arrived at home, I received a call on behalf of Alameda County to notify me I had tested positive for COVID-19 (damn). Even without the results, I knew that that was what I had, but at least I was sure of what was happening. So the treatment begins.

Wednesday, April 1. Things seem to improve a little now. I am undergoing treatment. The doctor knowing that I am positive with the coronavirus begins to treat me. Now I have a nebulizer. I also have a machine that makes me exercise.

With the medication, I get very hungry, so I try to eat the healthiest possible, although with so much delicious food it looks like I’ll gain a lot of weight. My afternoon passed much better, so I have more desire to talk and to clean a bit of this disaster that I have in my house. I’m going to fight with everything to beat this sickness and it looks like I’m achieving it.

Thursday, April 2. Oh yes, much better. I have slept 12 hours, what I had not been able to do in more than a week. There is no head pain nor temperature. I am much more coordinated and the muscle pain is more comfortable. I remain hungry and sleepy, although it is not of very good quality: I have nightmares, dreams about Hell. I see fire and dark swamps. I don’t know how to describe them, but they are weird. I’ve been doing breathing exercises since yesterday with a vapor machine and albuterol to help my lungs and it looks like it’s working since I am breathing much better, thank God.

Friday, April 3. I am much better. The temperature has disappeared, the headache is no longer so intense. I am sweating a lot, especially my head and my back. I am keeping myself busy, since I can get out of bed and walk all over the house.

(Because he feels so much better, Arias abandons his journal. He eats and cleans. After three weeks, he provides one last journal entry.)

Friday, April 24. It should be mentioned that it has been a little more than a month since the symptoms began. I feel much better. My body is recovering all these days. I have been doing the exercises with the machine and the albuterol. My breathing is almost as I had it before the disease. I have seen some small pimples on my back, apparently side effects of the medication. My breathing is lacking a little, but I am improving substantially. I think I survived.

Rafael Arias poses in the doorway of his home in Oakland after recovering from the coronavirus. | Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


Rafael Arias remains out of work due to the shelter-in-place restrictions. He estimates he spent about $1,000 for all of his care. Shortly after he invited The Chronicle to his house, Arias says, his landlord put the property on the market. So now he is scrambling to find a new home. He’s set up a fund to help him meet these costs.

At times, he still struggles to catch his breath, a lingering condition. He marvels at how he was able to survive.

“It was not my time.”

Editor’s note: This account is a combination of The Chronicle’s translation by Erika Carlos and Tatiana Sanchez of the 17-page journal Arias wrote in Spanish and his own abridged English translation. The journal entries were edited for length and clarity.

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.  John Blanchard is a staff artist.  Daymond Gascon is a staff designer.

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