Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

I recently turned 65, so my doctor decided to schedule me for a colonoscopy at the Adventist Hospital in Bakersfield. It was a relaxing two-hour drive. After a short wait, I was taken to the pre-operation room and given a COVID-19 test. An IV was inserted near my wrist, and an anesthesiologist discussed his part of the procedure. 

As a nurse began to wheel me towards the operating room, the gentleman who gave me the COVID-19 test came running to tell me that I tested positive. I thought he was kidding because I felt completely normal. Everyone disappeared, and the guard helped me get back into my prison clothes. I was immediately escorted out of the hospital and to the car I had arrived in. I was driven back to the prison. This time, the guard wasn’t cruising but driving between 90 to 100 miles an hour on Interstate 5.

I was taken directly to C Yard with other men who had tested positive. I started to feel a little tired but thought it was because I hadn’t eaten any solid food in 36 hours. 

I settled into my new room. My personal property had been bagged up by my roommate. Thankfully, all the items that my roommate knew were important to me were in the bag. To my surprise, within 24 hours, I was reunited with my property. I didn’t feel ill, so I wondered if the hospital had made a mistake. 

I was given a torn sheet and a wool blanket with holes in it. I slept in my clothes with my shoes on. I was cold all night. The television in the building was on a Spanish channel. The volume was loud, and the voices were muffled. I have no idea when the set was finally turned off, and it became quiet.

I was given a telephone call and a shower upon rising. I called my sister to tell her that I had tested positive for COVID-19. Just hearing her voice comforted me greatly. She passed word onto my friends and relatives, and many sent heartfelt get well cards. Unfortunately, all the messages arrived weeks later after I had returned to A Yard.

Having my property, including a television, cheered me up. The nurse came by twice a day to check vitals. 

More men kept arriving. The showers and telephone calls stopped as the building filled up. The guards were trying their best, but clearly were overwhelmed. Two inmates spent the entire day cleaning and disinfecting.

On Day 5, I started experiencing difficulty breathing. I began to hyperventilate. I couldn’t get enough oxygen. The nurses hurried from one cell to another doing as little as possible, showing no sympathy whatsoever. 

Both my temperature and blood pressure were normal. The fingertip pulse oximeter showed me at 88%, lower than the normal oxygen saturation range of 96 to 99%. Even then the nurses didn’t seem concerned. 

I was cold, alone and isolated. One particular evening, I felt absolutely awful, completely lethargic and listless. I was curled up in a fetal position unable to move. I was shaking uncontrollably, breathing deeply and rapidly and discombobulated. I thought the Lord might take me home! 

Before this, I had never thought about how sad it would be to die alone. Being surrounded by family members and friends would be a loving and peaceful way to go. It brought tears to my eyes, thinking of all those souls who were in pain and alone in their final hours. By the grace of God, I made it through that night.

The following day, I felt totally depleted and utterly miserable. I couldn’t do anything, such as read or write. Again, the nurses did nothing. 

After a week, I was informed I was being moved to the B Yard gymnasium. It took all my energy to pack up my personal belongings and put them into a cart. The next exhausting chore was pushing it a half mile to the gym.

The gym was filthy, and it had been unoccupied for a long time. The 24 bunks brought in were covered with dirt and bird droppings. They were spaced six feet apart. The upper bunk was storage for property. 

Being with other men gave me peace of mind. About half were from the “Paws For Life” dog program that I’m involved in. We are a tight-knit family in Lancaster. We share the love and passion of training rescue dogs who would have been euthanized. 

These friends encouraged me to get up and move around even though it was difficult. Because I was the oldest, they spoiled me, checking on me often, giving me hot tea and chicken noodle soup. Bryant kindly scrubbed and cleaned my bunk for me. He also attached a line around my bunk (made from a torn sheet). I turned it into a privacy curtain by hanging a sheet on it. The unconditional love and compassion shown by these men was truly overwhelming.

Maintenance men installed a new, large screen television for us. It relieved the boredom somewhat. Other men played cards and worked out. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was constantly tired and worn out, while others experienced mild symptoms that lasted just a couple of days.

The nurses seemed better and more understanding on B Yard. They were concerned and offered to order me medications such as acetaminophen (for muscle aches), Ondansetron (for nausea) and Cepacol (for my sore throat). My buddy helped me get the medications quickly by asking the guards to call the medical department. My blood oxygen level reading improved. Sharing common showers and toilets didn’t bother me, it reminded me of my high school and college days. There were two telephones, I was finally able to reconnect with family and friends. 

My next symptom on the ninth day was constipation. I hadn’t had a bowel movement in 48 hours. I had constant pain in my intestine area. Eventually, the toilet called my name, but the excitement was short lived. 

I developed diarrhea on day 11. My breathing was better, but my lungs were injured and sore from hyperventilating.

After a week in the gym on day 15, I finally returned to my original room of five years on A Yard. I was glad to be home. Slowly but surely, my health improved. But even after a month, I’m still not fully recovered.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 was the most miserable, frightening and agonizing disease I had ever experienced. 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Lawrence May

Lawrence May is a contributing writer incarcerated in Lancaster, Calif. He has traveled to nearly 40 countries outside the U.S. and has written more than 50 stories, as well as his autobiography.