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Day in the Life: Former Ironman competitor, Hien D. Tran, recounts feeling ill with COVID-19-like symptoms

Hien D. Tran, 54, is an astronomer and scientist and believes he was infected with the COVID-19 virus.

Day in the Life is a series of occasional articles in which The Baltimore Sun looks at how Marylanders have been making their way through the coronavirus pandemic.

Today: Middle River astronomer and scientist Hien D. Tran, although never tested, believes he battled the COVID-19 virus and recounts the eighteen days of his illness.

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"Then one day, after coming back from my regular run and taking a shower, I felt something wasn’t right. I felt tired and unenergetic. Granted, I just finished a 7-mi run, but it was nothing unusual, just a normal dose of goodness that I’ve been taking regularly for quite a while now. But this time it just didn’t feel right. Something was different. Instead of feeling energized after a run, I needed to rest. Then the headache came, and the body aches, the chills, and just general malaise. It was Tue. Mar. 24, 2020." -Hien D. Tran
"Then one day, after coming back from my regular run and taking a shower, I felt something wasn’t right. I felt tired and unenergetic. Granted, I just finished a 7-mi run, but it was nothing unusual, just a normal dose of goodness that I’ve been taking regularly for quite a while now. But this time it just didn’t feel right. Something was different. Instead of feeling energized after a run, I needed to rest. Then the headache came, and the body aches, the chills, and just general malaise. It was Tue. Mar. 24, 2020." -Hien D. Tran (Hien Tran)

Hien D. Tran, 54, is an astronomer and scientist living in Middle River. As a former Ironman competitor, he still enjoys getting out for his regular run, but in late March he began to feel sick after returning from his usual seven-mile run. He believes he battled the COVID-19 virus and recounts the eighteen days during his illness.

"Like many of you, I’ve been cooped up in the house, sheltered in place for the past 4 weeks or so. There’s been a state-wide order to stay at home for over a week now, and my company has required everyone but essential personnel to work from home even well before that. I’ve been going about my days as usual, which consisted of waking up whenever I felt like and grabbing my computer to start work in bed, often still in my pajamas. Then one day, after coming back from my regular run and taking a shower, I felt something wasn’t right. I felt tired and un-energetic. Granted, I just finished a 7-mile run, but it was nothing unusual, just a normal dose of goodness that I’ve been taking regularly for quite a while now. But this time it just didn’t feel right. Something was different. Instead of feeling energized after a run, I needed to rest. Then the headache came, and the body aches, the chills, and just general malaise. It was Tue. Mar. 24, 2020.

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"I feel much stronger, I would say essentially 100% back to normal, 18 days in now. I know because for the first time today I went out for a run; it was my usual 7 miles, and I felt absolutely fantastic." -Hien D. Tran
"I feel much stronger, I would say essentially 100% back to normal, 18 days in now. I know because for the first time today I went out for a run; it was my usual 7 miles, and I felt absolutely fantastic." -Hien D. Tran (Hien Tran)

But there was no cough, no fever, at least not the 101-104 level that has been reported (I don’t have a thermometer so I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t feel excessively hot), or shortness of breath — some of the most common symptoms for COVID-19 that people have been told to watch out for. But clearly the head and body aches were definitely persistent. This was no simple headache either, it was the head-stabbing, ice-picking migraine attacks on the side and top of your head. It was constant, and debilitating. Then my eyes started to feel really heavy, like two billiard balls that hurt every time I rolled them. I have a stupid human trick where I can wiggle my ears without touching them, and my head would pound with pain every time I did so. I’m not sure if that’ll ever make it into the official list of COVID-19 symptoms, but it’s a nice little trick if you ever wonder and want to try and diagnose yourself.

Another thing was clear; I suddenly lost all my sense of smell, taste and appetite. I’ve read reports of this before, and now it has become all too real. At first I wasn’t sure, but then I tried smelling rubbing alcohol — nothing! Then I tried the Clorox spray that I often use to disinfect my bathroom — nope. What??!! The Clorox spray has always been so potent, so pungent, and vile that whenever I used it for cleaning, I always had to open all the windows and turn on the vents so I wouldn’t have to smell or breath in the toxic fume, which would make me nauseated. But now I smelled nothing! I practically had it in my nose and still nothing! It was clear this was no flu, it wasn’t a cold, or an allergy. It was becoming clear that I was experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

"I attempted working from home, but could barely type a few words on the computer before having to stop and rest, constantly grabbing and laying my head on the desk before gathering enough energy to try again. I knew exactly what to do, but doing so was almost impossible." Hien D. Tran
"I attempted working from home, but could barely type a few words on the computer before having to stop and rest, constantly grabbing and laying my head on the desk before gathering enough energy to try again. I knew exactly what to do, but doing so was almost impossible." Hien D. Tran (Hien Tran)

Still in denial about COVID-19, I began Googling to see if it made any sense. I also tried “meningitis” and “migraine headache”, but it seemed obvious that taken together, all indications were that I was experiencing what would be considered a “mild” case of COVID-19. My situation didn’t become serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room, so I simply followed guidelines and monitored from home. I didn’t call or talk to my health care provider. I didn’t need or want to get tested, since it would better serve people in more dire needs, and would not have helped me anyway. Also, I didn’t want to risk venturing out for anything. So hunkering down and riding it out at home was the way to go.

The next couple days I continued to feel ill and lethargic, but nothing really too bad. I would still do my usual daily Skyping with my daughter Hannah in California to check in with and home-school her (she’s hoping she won't get the same teacher next year, if it lasts that long). By the third day, I was beginning to feel more and more tired, and the headache wouldn’t go away. I told Hannah on our Skype call that I was feeling somewhat under the weather, and that was the first time anyone else had known about this. The next day, Hannah and Olivia called and started asking questions: how are you feeling? Are you ok? Is the headache still there? What’s going on?? Well, moving my ears still hurt my head, and rolling my eyes still wasn’t the most comfortable thing, but night time was when the demons started to come out.

I would get body chills at night when trying to sleep; I would wear layers of clothing going to bed, covering up with blankets, but my body would shake then I would sweat and get hallucinations. Not exactly dreams, but weird and wild delirium. I didn’t feel like being able to sleep all that well, and it was not a well-rested kind of a slumber, but more of a lying-awake, half-asleep kind of state that went on all night long. Then when morning came, I didn’t feel like I’ve rested at all. I was still feeling miserable and totally exhausted.

"I sat down at the piano for the first time since that fateful Saturday and played beautifully the best Chopin any of my quarantined neighbors has ever heard. And I finished it!" -Hien D. Tran
"I sat down at the piano for the first time since that fateful Saturday and played beautifully the best Chopin any of my quarantined neighbors has ever heard. And I finished it!" -Hien D. Tran (Hien Tran)

The exhaustion was total and complete, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. If there’s one thing that may distinguish this illness from anything you might have encountered, I would say that it is this absolute and total knock-out state that you get into. This peaked at around day 8-9. The first few days after experiencing symptoms you might feel somewhat unwell, but for several days after that, you will feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Every single little thing became a real chore, and extremely difficult to accomplish. Just the thought of moving or doing something made you weak. I attempted working from home, but could barely type a few words on the computer before having to stop and rest, constantly grabbing and laying my head on the desk before gathering enough energy to try again. I knew exactly what to do, but doing so was almost impossible. I simply stared. It really knocked you out cold, zombified you. It took me a couple hours to accomplish what I would normally do in a couple of minutes. Just around this time, Chris Cuomo of CNN happened to come down with COVID-19, and what he was describing on his show seemed to match exactly what I was experiencing.

I worry about my family and loved ones; I am scared for my elderly parents, for those family members who are at the front lines battling this disease as health care workers day in and day out.

But what made me realize that this illness really did a number on me was when I couldn’t finish my Chopin. That was the straw that broke my back, so to speak. I have a handful of piano pieces that I have been practicing for several years now, just enough to maintain my musicality. But about a week into this, when I tried to go through my usual repertoire, it was just God-awful! I missed notes, couldn’t remember them, misread keys, and just had an absolute atrocity of a performance, even for a practice with nobody else listening. Forget about nuanced interpretation or subtle lyricism. Lucky if I could get through it all without butchering the whole thing. Still, I tried to soldier on, feeling of course totally out of it, managing a pass through a couple of Beethoven. Then, while playing appropriately enough, the “Funeral March” by Chopin, I had to give up, unable to finish what I had done perhaps hundreds of times before. That was it. I felt terrible. If hurting your head while wiggling your ears was emblematic of this disease, then being unable to finish your Chopin would be the other defining moment of this pandemic, in my view.

Throughout this whole ordeal, I never took a single piece of medication, not even Tylenol. Of course, my medicine cabinet has no such thing. I never had a need for it. I don’t own a thermometer either, so I didn’t know for sure if I really had any fever. Perhaps a mild or low-grade one, if any. No, I went through it all with just good ol fashioned toughing it out, lots of tea and coffee (which I couldn’t smell) and rest. And of course, Progresso soup! Actually, that was really awful. Really very bad. With the lack of smell, taste and appetite, just the thought of eating anything made me want to barf. But I had to eat to have enough energy just to stay alive. I was thinking, “If they can do it for 21 days on Naked and Afraid on little more than a few grubs while naked in the jungle , surely I can make it barely clothed while quarantined at home!” But eating Progresso was all I could muster to do. I was running low on food, and the thought of doing any real cooking didn’t sound very appetizing. It didn’t help when everybody was texting or posting on FB delicious dishes that they were making during their quarantines. It was torture.

"Now that I’ve gone through the other side, the one silver lining to all of this is knowing that I may now be immune to this nasty virus. My convalescent plasma may possibly be used to save a life. I can smell and enjoy my coffee again." -Hien D. Tran
"Now that I’ve gone through the other side, the one silver lining to all of this is knowing that I may now be immune to this nasty virus. My convalescent plasma may possibly be used to save a life. I can smell and enjoy my coffee again." -Hien D. Tran (Hien Tran)

During the height of the sickness, I found that the best body position to be in that would make me feel the best was lying with my legs up and head lowered down to the ground — face up. Try it, it really worked. And of course, laughter. Day 10 was when I suddenly felt markedly better. While it could be attributed to the natural course of progression for the illness, it just so happened that that was when my sister sent out this really hilarious, super funny video of what I think was a mouse singing a parody of a Vietnamese song while being quarantined. Not only was the crooning impeccable, what it described also so accurately reflected how I was feeling and behaving at the time. I was laughing so hard, I think it made me all the more better. Absolutely.

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This pandemic is causing so much grief across the globe. It has upended life as we know it, devastated economies, and killed more than a hundred thousand already. Millions more will be infected, and untold numbers will die. Personally, I am consumed by it everyday; I worry about my family and loved ones; I am scared for my elderly parents, for those family members who are at the front lines battling this disease as health care workers day in and day out. I cannot imagine doing that while trying not to get sick themselves, often with inadequate protection. My hat’s off to them. I am fortunate to have had just a “mild” case, but even so, I would not wish it on my worst enemy (well... maybe a couple).

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Now that I’ve gone through the other side, the one silver lining to all of this is knowing that I may now be immune to this nasty virus. My convalescent plasma may possibly be used to save a life. I can smell and enjoy my coffee again. I can cook real food again. I can entertain again with the talent to flap my ears like elephants. I feel much stronger, I would say essentially 100% back to normal, 18 days in now. I know because for the first time today I went out for a run; it was my usual 7 miles, and I felt absolutely fantastic. And also, I sat down at the piano for the first time since that fateful Saturday and played beautifully the best Chopin any of my quarantined neighbors has ever heard. And I finished it!

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