Surviving coronavirus

Ian Morrison

Ian Morrison turned 46 on March 13 and celebrated his birthday in quarantine with a case of COVID-19. Morrison is well-known in the Philadelphia LGBTQ community for his drag performances as Miss Brittany Lynn and his performances at Drag Bingo, Drag Queen Story Time and other venues.

Morrison talked at length about his harrowing experience with the coronavirus in a socially distanced interview with PGN. Morrison is quick with a quip, and his natural hilarity shows through, but the details of his illness are far from humorous. He went through two waves of the virus, experiencing many of the symptoms that have been described: fever, fatigue, cough, difficulty breathing, stomach and intestinal distress, as well as a second wave of circulation problems — COVID-19 can impact the heart and circulation. But there is currently little treatment except rest, fluids and isolation, unless the illness turns more severe and the patient requires hospitalization. About 80 percent of COVID-19 patients recuperate at home.

Morrison said he wants people to know what COVID-19 is like: “I thought I was going to die,”

Currently, in self-quarantine as directed by Jefferson Hospital doctors, Morrison said he is beginning to feel better physically after nearly a month of serious illness. Knowing he survived COVID-19, he said, “I feel like I am a superwoman for surviving this. I think I am finally going to be OK.”

But for weeks, Morrison has been anything but OK. Instead, he tamped down fear of the virus by telling himself first that he had “some flu bug,” and then that he “maybe just had pneumonia.”

He had COVID-19.

On March 13, Morrison appeared for Drag Bingo as one of his drag characters, Rita Marie. “I was sweating; I was hot,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t have menopause already!’ I was glad I was dressed as Rita Marie and not Brittany Lynn. Rita Marie is dressed like an old lady going to bingo.”

The fever turned into overwhelming fatigue. On Saturday, Morrison knew he was sick. A bartender at Tavern on Camac on Saturday nights “where the crowd is often three deep at the bar,” Morrison knew he would not be able to work and called out sick. 

And sick he was. He asked a doctor for Z-Pak, which is actually being used as one of the treatments for coronavirus for those patients who are hospitalized. Z-Pak is azithromycin, an antibiotic used to treat a range of infections. That may have helped mitigate the extent of his illness and the impact on his lungs.

Morrison’s illness intensified over the next few days, and soon he said the coughing was “nonstop. I felt like a victim of 1920s consumption.”

In addition, like about 70 percent of people with COVID-19, Morrison was nauseated and had intestinal distress. “I was living on orange juice, ginger ale and Mucinex,” he said. “Everything I put in my body came out soon after.”

Suffering from “dehydration and weight loss,” Morrison was exhausted from both the coronavirus fatigue that is a significant symptom of the disease and from the coughing.

“I was afraid to sleep, afraid that I would choke to death,” he said.

His family and friends were worried. “People were aggressive and getting mad at me,” he said. “They were calling and texting me, ‘Go get tested and tell me what they say.’ I had a big fight with my mom. Everyone means well, but how could I go get tested? I am literally in bed and trying to breathe. I thought I was going to die.”

Miss Brittany Lynn

Morrison said Brittany’s fan base was especially voluble. “I had hundreds of people on [Facebook] Messenger and Instagram, sending me messages about work for Brittany and asking how I was.” He said he appreciated that they were worried about him, but, “If you know someone is sick, let them recover.”

The fever and coughing began to decrease, but then another symptom appeared — circulatory problems in his hands, ankles and feet that were so alarming and painful, he went to the emergency room at Jefferson Hospital.

Morrison describes the early morning hours of a city in lockdown as a “zombie-ization” with sick people and people in protective clothing. “They had this tent up,” he said, “and they were separating the virus patients from everyone else.”

Once he was taken inside and triaged, he saw a series of doctors and other health professionals. His vital signs and reflexes were checked, and he was given an EKG and chest X-ray. His lungs showed the tell-tale webbing of COVID-19.

He was also given the COVID-19 test. “They take a long Q-tip that goes all the way up to your brain — or feels like it.”

Morrison tested positive. But as with the majority of COVID-19 patients who aren’t in dire breathing distress, needing oxygen or a ventilator, he was discharged. The doctors told him he was in the second stage of the illness, and the virus was “working its way out” of his system. He was told he was fortunate that he was previously “healthy and vibrant” and to maintain a strict two-week quarantine and only to come back to the hospital if he had difficulty breathing.

Then came what Morrison describes as “the shadiest part of my experience at Jefferson.”

A woman came in with papers for him to sign.

“She said, ‘…I am going to have to collect money from you,’ and made me pay a $435 ER fee,” Morrison said. “They wouldn’t let me go without paying. Another lady came in and had me fill out paperwork for the remainder of the bill.”

COVID-19 testing is supposed to be free.

Morrison is recovering now and said, “The pain in my fingers is gone; the pain in my ankles is nearly gone.” He’s had a flare-up of lung pain but feels markedly better.

“I feel empowered,” he said of his ordeal. “I’m safe now. I went through the ritual before Passover.”

Morrison, still looking for his characteristic humor in his experience, said, “I felt like a strong single mom with my cat and dog. I had to think of the children and survive.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.