John Dodd thought it was a hangover.
Waking up in his Tuscaloosa apartment June 5, the Alabama student from Winfield, Alabama felt like garbage the morning after drinking a few beers with three friends. It happens.
He went to the gym in his apartment complex thinking he could sweat it out.
What followed, however, was anything but paying the tax for a night of drinking. The gym offered no cure as a fever began. Within 48 hours, the sore throat started as his sense of smell and taste slipped away.
A few nights later, Dodd struggled so badly to breathe, he ran his shower on max heat so the steam would soothe his lungs.
Dodd’s a healthy 20-year old and a COVID-19 survivor.
And he has a message for his Alabama classmates as in-person classes resume Wednesday in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s very real,” Dodd said, free of symptoms since the end of June. “It could have been even worse for me and it was already bad enough. I would never want to go through that again and I couldn’t imagine it being worse and for a lot of people out there, it is a lot worse.”
The junior majoring in political science and public relations posted a video on Twitter so friends heard his story.
Speaking with AL.com, Dodd described in detail the descent into the depths of COVID-19 and how it led to that late night in the steamy shower, gasping for breath.
“Some days I was so filled with anxiety,” Dodd said, “that I just couldn’t bring myself to eat.”
It all started with the misdiagnosed hangover.
Dodd couldn’t say with certainty where he got the virus that’s infected 5.5 million in the United States and 22.2 million worldwide. He thought he was being safe, following the protocols and avoiding big groups.
Yet there he was, checking boxes on the symptom list for the deadliest pandemic in a century. So, he drove over to DCH hospital to get a drive-through COVID-19 test. The Alabama Department of Public Health called a few days later with the bad news. The conversation lasted approximately 45 minutes as the isolation guidelines were listed and known contacts were discussed.
“I was extremely terrified when I first got the news but then I reassured myself,” Dodd said. “Like, I try to take care of my body and I’m a pretty healthy guy, so I don’t think I’m going to like die or anything like that but I’ll be honest, I was pretty dang scared because I had never experienced any illness like that before.”
It only got worse from there.
“The symptoms, I sadly had pretty much every symptom that I could have had,” Dodd said. “I had a continuous fever for about 10 of the 14 days, around 101 degrees. I had a cough that would usually lead me to cough up this kind of mucus substance from my lungs. I had a shortness of breath, sore throat and a pretty rough headache that would come around every so often and constant fatigue and aching.”
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The sense of taste didn’t return until after he exited the isolation of his apartment.
“And to this day, my lungs are kinda weak,” he said. “They haven’t fully recovered yet.”
A hike just last weekend left his lungs sore, Dodd said as he readied for Wednesday’s first day of UA classes.
The most concerning moment came five days into his ordeal when he had to crank up the heat in his shower. He couldn’t get his breath until inhaling the vapors from the steam.
“It scared me enough to where I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital,” he said, “but thankfully I didn’t.”
That decision was based partially on that initial conversation with the ADPH representative. Dodd said he was told he didn’t have to go to the hospital unless his lips or fingertips turned purple.
They didn’t, so he stayed locked in his apartment.
Fatigue was a constant and boredom competed with occasional anxiety. He watched movies. Moonlight, the 2017 Academy Award best picture, stood out along with a few westerns.
“I was terrified to even watch the news,” he said, “because it just scared me.”
There were other, more constructive ways of passing the time. Dodd called it Learn-a-Day as an antidote for “being stuck in my own head” while spending 14 days cut off from any human contact. He’d pick a topic that interested him and research for a few hours. The Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, occupied one of those 14 days.
Dodd’s parents would make the hour drive south to drop off care packages on his back porch. They never had face to face contact. Mom texted him after they left to let him know it was out there.
“They did a great job of not showing it in front of me,” Dodd said. “But they were very scared about it all. They weren’t mad at me. They were just very worried, very scared.”
The worst fears, thankfully, weren’t realized.
Symptoms subsided toward the end of his time in quarantine and eventually the isolation ended. One of the three friends who shared beers with him before that non-hangover hangover also tested positive but was asymptomatic.
There was initial hesitancy to talk about battling the virus though word spread among friends. That led to filming a warning for peers and posting it to Twitter.
“I made that video to put a message out so maybe people will realize someone they know caught it and it’s a healthy young person and it petrified them and beat them up pretty good,” Dodd said. “I tried to put a message out, but I don’t think a lot of my friends listened because they still have the mindset that they’re indestructible right now.”
Most of his inner circle listened. It had an impact on his friend, Matthew Travis.
“It definitely did,” the junior from Charlotte said, “because that was around the time every state started to enforce the fact you had to wear a mask so that was a little bit of a wakeup call and showed it was serious because, I mean, personally up to that point, I didn’t know anybody who had it so I didn’t really know if it was as bad as people were saying but after that, I started to realize.”
Not everyone was moved, though. Dodd still sees good friends going to bars, dismissing the need to wear a mask and sharing misinformation online.
That’s why the typically optimistic Dodd isn’t liking the odds of a clean semester of in-person learning. A few productive weeks, maybe, but he expects a spike after four of five weeks and a return to online-only learning.
The whole thing’s like a bad hangover — a fever dream of a year — and Dodd just hopes his classmates don’t share his experience when the campus again swells with students.
“My only message is to take it a lot more seriously,” Dodd said, “because it’s a lot bigger than we realize.”
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.