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'It's like playing virus roulette' | St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist shares coronavirus survival story

Aisha Sultan took her husband to the hospital after he contracted COVID-19. Then, she tested positive, too.

ST. LOUIS — The scariest moments for Aisha Sultan during her husband’s battle with COVID-19 happened at night.

That’s when she knew his symptoms would be at their worst inside their west St. Louis County home.

And she knew she couldn’t be near him.

Couldn’t listen to him breathe.

And couldn’t take his temperature.

“There is a very intense fear in the morning, when you knock on his door or call him,” she recalled.

It went on for eight days until finally, 55-year-old Irshad Khan’s oxygen level dipped below the threshold his doctor told him was safe enough to battle the virus at home.

His wife has written about his struggles with the virus for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – where she has worked for 23 years. She’s now a syndicated columnist tackling family issues and social change.

She’s hoping that sharing her family’s journey with the virus that’s now killed 200,000 people in the United States might help prevent others from getting sick.

And it comes at a time when Illinois saw its highest daily count of COVID-19 cases in the past seven days.

“So many things about this are unpredictable, like the way your body is going to react, who might get it and who might not, who gets really sick and who doesn't feel anything,” Sultan said. “I wrote in my column that it's like playing virus roulette.

“And what if you just happen to be an unlucky one. What if someone you love, happens to be someone who gets really sick or dies?”

Early on, a $20 pulse/oxygen monitor Sultan said she bought from Amazon was a lifeline. It kept track of her husband’s oxygen levels and pulse so she could monitor him, even though she couldn’t be in the same room.

Sultan, 46, took her husband to Missouri Baptist Hospital’s ER after Labor Day weekend.

Their children, ages 17 and 15, couldn’t hug him.

“They just stood in the driveway and watched me take him,” she said.

She then watched through a window as her husband through sat in the waiting room of the emergency room for about four hours.

Then, she watched as a nurse led him away. 

“The not knowing is the scariest part about this disease, the not knowing how bad it is going to get,” she said.

He remained hospitalized for seven days, battling pneumonia that developed in both of his lungs. They kept in touch via an iPad. Her mind drifted to families who have loved ones who can't use virtual technology to stay in touch. 

"There are some people who have elderly parents or disabled relatives who cannot operate a phone or cannot just hop on the phone with them and I think about those people," she said. 

She also couldn’t help but think about how just the year before, her husband climbed a mountain with his friends. They had planned to climb another one again this year.

“He’s a very healthy, active person and to see him so sick was startling and scary, but it was even worse that I couldn’t just be there with him,” she said.

Then, Sultan started feeling short of breath.

She tested positive, too.

She didn’t tell her kids.

She just kept her distance from them, wearing a mask anytime she left her own room.

She said she didn’t want to stress them more than they already were, worrying about their dad and dealing with virtual schooling and quarantining from their friends.

But, she admits, she was scared, too.

“There's so much fear because I'd seen my husband go from sick, to sicker, to hospitalized,” she said.

Luckily, her symptoms were mild.

But she said she’s still not back to normal.

“I've been hiking like three or four times a week ever since the pandemic started and now I can barely walk a mile and I'm spent,” she said.

Khan is still struggling, too.

He’s been home for two weeks, but still relies on an oxygen machine to keep his levels up.

Doctors say he might need it for another four to six weeks.

Brushing his teeth leaves him winded.

So does walking down the stairs.

The buzz and vibration of his oxygen tank can be heard from virtually every room in the family’s house.

Clear and green hoses snake up the stairs, bringing the oxygen to Khan inside his home office on the second level.

“That’s in the background of our house all the time,” Sultan said.

And the machine hissed with more compressed air and continued whirring behind her.

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