Thank You Dear COVID

Last Thursday I woke around five in the morning with chest pain. Eventually I’d attribute it to a combination of:

  1. having slept weirdly on my side (pulling a muscle),
  2. “air conditioner disease” (fungus and cold dry air from the A/C above the bed),
  3. and possibly a seasonal allergen;

…but I had never experienced this peculiar brand of discomfort. It gave me real concern.

Another overarching cause of my condition was very likely mental and spiritual,

4. “Monday through Friday Forever” disease, a result of having burned ten hours per week for the past ten years in the effort to transport my body to and from the place where I was required to exist in exchange for money. On a deep level this was my body, brain, and soul telling me I needed a break.

To get this peculiar brand of discomfort checked out, I rode the bike a mile in the heat of the summer afternoon to the doctor near Hase station, on the Daibutzu (Big Buddha) street. Riding a bike two miles round-trip with chest pain may not have been the wisest move, but the warm, humid air soothed my lungs, even if my chest and left shoulder were still sore. This told me it was at least partially a musculature issue, and I felt a little better by the time I reached the doctor’s office.

Inside I wore a mask, of course, but curiously the doctor did not. I liked this doctor. He was a Star Wars fan. There was a big Yoda in the examination room. The doctor wore Michael Jackson parachute pants. I explained to him that for several weeks I had been struggling with a dry cough and gunk in my throat – not like flu phlegm, but really sticky stuff that had me clearing my throat all the time. It persisted the week after we had had the air conditioners cleaned. For the past month I had also felt fatigued, burned-out, and run down, again, the “Monday Through Friday Forever” disease.

The doctor concluded that I had an infection in my lungs, but it wasn’t influenza. He gave me a prescription for what would turn out to be an ineffective pain killer, and directions to get COVID testing later that night. The doctor wanted to rule out COVID before prescribing anything else.

I didn’t think I had COVID. My “fever” was one degree above normal, and this was likely due to my bike ride exertion in the saucy afternoon heat. I didn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Still, I was curious about the COVID testing procedure and agreed to check it out.

My appointment for COVID testing was at 20:30, at Kamakura City Hall. I was given detailed instructions on how to prepare and what to expect. The payment (26,280 yen) needed to be paid in exact change, cash and coins, sealed in a Ziploc bag. I was to look for someone with a flashlight in the parking lot, bringing payment and the paperwork from the Star Wars doctor, keeping a distance of twelve feet.

For whatever reason the whole process was shrouded in secrecy. The Kamakura municipal government was taking measures to make the testing as discreet as possible. So as to not alarm the locals? I wasn’t sure.

At around 20:20 I rode the bike down to City Hall, which is on the wooded grounds formerly occupied by the Emperor’s summer estate. It was adjacent to Onari Shogakko (Onari elementary school), my older son’s favorite place. The night air was humid and smelled of old vegetation. I stopped before entering the parking lot and put on a mask.

Sure enough there was someone to meet me in front of City Hall, a woman with an orange flashlight wand, like something used by air traffic controllers. She called out my name when I approached, “Waito-san?” and pointed to where I could park the bike.

Further away there was another light-wand individual beckoning me forth, and then another after him. Keeping their distance, they herded me through the darkness, down a long ramp leading to the back side of City Hall. Here there was a small parking area, brightly illuminated by flood lamps, with a stool placed out in the open. The whole area was enclosed by concrete walls six meters high with vines hanging down. An older guy approached out of the bright light. He was dressed as a physician, with white lab coat, face mask, goggles, visor, and gloves. Were all Japanese doctors gray-haired men? He asked me to sit on the stool, so that’s what I did. The whole scene looked like a place where someone might get interrogated, tortured, or killed by cold, sadistic scientists; but I was amused by the whole thing and feeling healthy after having taken a long nap.

There was a small table about five meters from where I sat on the stool, and a small Japanese-sized van another five meters beyond that. The engine was running. There were some professional-looking people sitting at tables on the other side of the van, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. The old physician yelled over and asked that I place my sealed Ziploc bag with payment and paperwork in the tray on the little table, so I got up and put the stuff where he asked. He waited until I was safely back at the stool before approaching the table. He sprayed down the Ziploc bag with something, and then carried it away, handling it like it was the most toxic thing in the world. A few minutes later a small older woman came within shouting distance and asked me to go to the back side of the little van, where there was another stool.

The back window of the van had two circles cut out of the glass. A pair of long rubber gloves protruded from the circles, sealed to protect the inside of the van. Inside, a young woman sat at the back window with her hands in the gloves, a testing swab pinched between two rubber fingers. She motioned for me to sit on the stool with the other rubber glove. She wore a mask and visor in addition to being inside a sealed little van, but despite her face coverings I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was amused, too. I tilted my head back and she inserted the swab. It went deep. I swore she touched brain. Afterwards I was asked to return to the first stool. A minute later the old physician came back and said I could go. I asked when I’d get the results, and he said the next morning. Good enough.

The next day I was feeling well-rested and somewhat back to normal, aside from the mild irritation of occasionally clearing the gunk out of my throat. There was no way I was going to “work” with a COVID test pending, so I let my management know what was going on. I certainly was in no hurry to get back there. A good portion of my general fatigue was related to the ridiculous and unnecessary physical presence requirement of my job. It had been a long six months of working in a COVID hot spot, for no reason at all. I needed a break from that place, and wished the COVID results would take weeks. Instead they took hours. The result was negative, of course.

Still, I wanted to get my chest double-checked, in the unlikely event that there was some serious problem lurking in my heart or lungs. I rode the bike back to the Star Wars Doctor’s office for a “letter of introduction,” which I would use to enter a local hospital and get checked out. The letter had all my medical information and the COVID test results.

Our neighborhood was rich, so our neighborhood hospital was rich, too. The hospital was new, and the reception area looked like the lobby of a tropical resort. I was the only patient there. Hell, the place was so quiet it felt like I was the only patient in the whole hospital. Apparently that big wave of COVID just hadn’t hit. I handed over my packet of information and sat down to fill out the usual annoying forms (even though I had just given them a letter that contained all of the information I would be required to fill out).

A lady approached and asked if I was covered by Japanese state insurance. No, I was not. I had Cigna corporate-subsidized health insurance for ex-patriots, allowing me to go to any hospital in the world. She sucked air over teeth when I explained this, but there was no outright denial of my admittance, so I continued filling out the forms.

Another receptionist walked over to explain something, which sounded a lot like they couldn’t admit me because I had just been tested (negative) for COVID. This made no sense, so I called my wife and asked her to translate. Sure enough, it made no sense. They wouldn’t let me see a doctor because I had just been tested for COVID, even though the results were negative. Was there any situation in which COVID test results were re-examined and reversed? I didn’t think so. Anyone on the street could have the virus and not know it. I had none of the symptoms in addition to having documented proof that I didn’t have the virus, but for this hospital, incredibly, that was too much risk.

The next day I went to pick up a packet of medicine from the pharmacist that had been called in by the Star Wars doctor. It included nasal spray, pills, and Chinese medicine, a magical powder that tasted like thousand-year-old Tang. Within a couple of days the infection in my lungs would be under control. But what about “Monday through Friday Forever” disease?

Later that day I logged into work email to let MGMT know I was taking Monday off, too, knowing one day wouldn’t be enough. To my surprise there was an email from MGMT, urging me to work from home the next week. Like the hospital, it seemed they were a little freaked out that I had gotten COVID-tested, despite the result. Again it made no sense, but for me this was ideal. It would be the most restful yet productive week of the decade. “Monday through Friday” didn’t seem so bad without the enormous waste of time and energy involved in the commute. Thank you, dear COVID. Working remotely, I regained physical and mental health.