Audrey was used to being busy. She was a manager of a salon and a full-time art student at University of Michigan. She had a side hustle as an owner of a photography business and she had a wife and a stepson.
When Covid came, everything came to a screeching halt. The salon closed four days before the shutdown. U of M went online. It was shocking.
“In the beginning, the reason I freaked out the most was because prior to the same company that my brother’s under, there were some unemployment issues when I was going to school a couple of years ago. So I was told it would be this long period of time that I would ever be able to qualify for unemployment again. So in my head, ‘Oh, shit. I can’t get unemployment. I’ve got to get my household together. I’ve got to have a source of income. I don’t qualify.’”
Her parents have a company that takes care of three hundred consumers over two counties. Before she worked at the salon, she had been working with her family’s business as a caregiver for fifteen years. Her brother resided at one of the homes with another customer. He was handicapped and needed round-the-clock care. Within a couple of days, Audrey was back on the schedule, taking care of her brother.
A lot of precautions were set up at the house. Caregivers had to wear masks. They were disinfecting the house every hour. To minimize the risk, Audrey did the grocery shopping for the home. It wasn’t enough.
“All of a sudden, one of the ladies was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I lost my taste and smell,’ and kind of sloughed it off, didn’t come into work for a couple of days.”
At the time, loss of taste and smell wasn’t a commonly known symptom of Covid. However, Audrey is certain the lady gave her the sickness. At the end of March, Audrey began to experience shortness of breath herself. At the time, though, she played it off as being caused by her smoking since she was a smoker. So, she quit smoking to see if it were just from the smoking or anxiety. It didn’t go away.
“It was weird. I was doing yard work and everything was fine… Then the next day I went out to do yard work and I couldn’t even hold the weed. I couldn’t hold it. I was like something’s not right. I don’t nap, and all of a sudden, I started napping, and it was a deep nap. Things were just really off for me.”
On April 1st, Audrey lost her taste and smell. It would never return.
“The seasons were changing. We’re getting into the spring. I have allergies, I get sinus infections. So I’m thinking that I’m getting a sinus infection. So then you slough it off and then you think, oh, maybe it is anxiety and I’m getting myself worked up, but I’m fine. Then there’s a moment of denial. I’m not sick. I don’t have it. I don’t have any symptoms. I think at that point they really hadn’t talked about the no taste and no smell.”
Despite all her symptoms, she didn’t stop working. It was rough. During this time, her parents decided that it was a good time to sell their house and they went down to Florida. Her mother normally took shifts at the house to look after her brother. Getting an extra caregiver to replace her would have been problematic. It was essential work, but the wages were pitiful compared to what she had been making at the salon. Nobody wanted the job. With her mother gone, Audrey had little choice but to take her mother’s shifts.
“What about the caregivers? They’re making minimum wage. They have families. At this point, we can’t hire anybody new. So, anyone who is already working for us is now going to different homes because we’re running out of staff and workshops are being shut down. But the government isn’t giving us more money and more hours to give these people care.”
Audrey’s brother is forty five years old but has a mental age of a two year old. Mentally, he’s a toddler, and he wants to be outside and he wants to keep moving. Even while he’s sleeping, he keeps moving.
“I’m chasing after this man child, and I’m out of breath. I’m not feeling well. I did have a spell where I thought I had a fever. I could feel the burning in my eyes, and I’m bathing him and I’m getting lightheaded. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get him out of this tub at that point, like I felt so weak.”
To give herself peace of mind, she got tested a few days later. It was early May. The test came back positive. She had her brother tested within three days. Despite their close proximity and her taking care of him while being Covid positive, her brother tested negative.
“So it’s really weird because he doesn’t know to stay away from you. He’s always in your face, touching, that kind of stuff… He has a weak immune system. He’s special needs — all that. That’s why we had all these things put in place extra. Fortunately, he didn’t get it.”
Her wife and stepson also never seemed to have gotten Covid. Audrey had always considered herself as the healthy horse of the family, but they didn’t get it and she did. Most of her symptoms eventually did go away. By Memorial Day, she was feeling much better, and she tested negative. However, her sensation of taste and smell never came back.
“I am a foodie, so I love trying new foods, going in places and eating. I love to grill. I love cooking. The hard part of that was you lose that sense of wanting to a degree. It’s summertime. You grill and you’re enjoying that. And you start losing interest. Now, the everyday [question], which everybody always has an issue with, what do you want to eat? And at that point, actually I just don’t want to eat at all. When it becomes about texture, you don’t realize how much you rely on the taste of things, like a steak. I love steak. I don’t so much like the texture. So I don’t eat it anymore because I can’t taste it.”
The desire to eat has greatly diminished. In the beginning, she actually gained weight because she was eating all kinds of things to try to see if something would have a taste. But she has lost fifteen pounds in the past three months. She’s no longer eating for the love of it. She’s eating just to survive.
Audrey is also having phantom smells. Certain foods have a chemical taste, and it varies. One day meat may taste like chemicals. The next day it’s vegetables that taste like chemicals. It can be hard to eat even a small portion of food. The experience can be very overwhelming.
“I don’t know what it was when it first started. You know how you can be somewhere and you can get a scent just stuck in your nose and you’re not there anymore but it’s still there? It’s like that. But now I’m smelling cleaning supplies… Coffee is awful. It’s a sewagy, sludgy, burnt smell, but it’s not all the time.”
In July, salons opened back up for appointments only. She left the caregiver job taking care of her brother and returned to the salon. Her salon has a lot of natural smells there, and she sometimes gets that stench in her nose. When she comes home, her food will taste like that.
“I had my first real, or I guess you would say slight mental breakdown, three or four days ago, I was craving a salad, and I just know your body tells you what it needs… I door-dashed a salad and a Coney dog, and I was super excited. I’d been starving. I’d just gotten home from work. I sat down, and I didn’t have any weird smells in my nose. I go to start eating and immediately it tastes awful…. I always wait it out and go to the next thing and the same taste and same whatever grossness is going on. I was so frustrated and so angry, and I snapped at my wife. She’s like, ‘There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry.’ I literally have been hungry since April, and that’s how I tell people. At that point, I started tearing up. I’m so hungry, and I can’t enjoy anything.”
Audry hadn’t gone to her doctor in over a year. After she got Covid, she ended up getting new insurance and went into the doctor’s office. She was thinking she was going to be able to talk to the doctor and get advice about her loss of taste and smell, but her doctor was too busy with telehealth, so she talked to the physician’s assistant instead. It didn’t feel like the PA was taking her seriously, though. She was just told to wait a month.
A month later, Audrey went back in. Audrey heard that it might be bacteria and asked if she could try an antibiotic, but they said no, she couldn’t. They were again telling her to just wait and see. Now, months later, Audrey returned and informed them of the same things she always does. She doesn’t have taste or smell. They nonchalantly responded that they wondered when she’d get it back. That’s all they said. No beneficial advice was gained.
She wishes people would show a little bit more compassion.
“You tell someone I don’t have taste and smell, and someone is just like, ‘Oh, well. That sucks.’ So they just slough it off, and you’re constantly having someone say, ‘Oh, taste this or smell this.’… I wish more people would show compassion and a little bit more understanding or sympathy.”
At first Audrey thought that losing the sense of taste and smell for months on end was rare, but she has found a Facebook page. There are hundreds and hundreds of people, probably thousands, all round the world in the same boat. So many people are asking questions and talking about how long they have not had their senses. It’s been overwhelming. There are the occasional stories of people getting their taste and smell back in a rush, but there are so many others that haven’t had any improvements even after six or seven months. She tries to stay off the page because of how depressing it can be but checks on it from time to time to see if there is anything new.
Life goes on without taste.
Her salon is open by appointment only. Everybody’s spread out and wearing masks all the time. If no one is booked, then employees don’t have to go to work, and once the work is done, the employees just pack up their stuff and go home.
“There’s no hanging out. There’s no any of that stuff. It just feels so cold when you’re in the salon because the experience that you get from us is, we do hand and arm massages, we do facials. We do all these things that we can’t do anymore. So it’s just sterile and cold when you walk in.”
She’s back to school. Tuition has gone up, which is frustrating. She has three online classes, which she doesn’t like, and one on campus. The one class at school is in a socially distanced classroom with desks and computers all six feet apart. Classes also feel sterile.
“We used to be able to get the studio together. You get your lights together and all of your stuff. You’ve got all these people touching and everyone’s in each other’s space. Now you’ve got a teacher yelling at you like, ‘Social distance, social distance!’ and the only two people in time that can use certain areas. You know, we were pretty spoiled… We’d have access to the studios and after hours and all of these things. That’s all been taken from us.”
Audrey is normally a really positive person. She tries to find the good in anything. Despite her taste and smell not returning and her frustrations at work and school, she says her spirit is not broken. Financially, she is doing alright. Fortunately, she was able to qualify for unemployment benefits. Since her wages as a caregiver were astronomically lower than her wages at the salon, she managed to continue getting unemployment even while she worked as a caregiver. And she still loves to go on adventures and do things.
All she can do is keep her spirits up and wait for life’s flavors to return and this loss of taste and smell is not permanent.
Read an epic story about a family who was delivering twins while fighting the coronavirus. Or watch more stories on fuconomy’s youtube channel.