It was a 45-minute drive to the Everett Memorial Stadium in Snohomish County. And the entire way, Prakash Gatta, a general surgeon with MultiCare in Tacoma, recalls thinking that there was no way his COVID-19 test would turn out positive.
He had to wait days for results, knowing that if he missed the testing agency's phone call they wouldn't leave a message. But finally, after five days, the voice on the other end of the line gave him the news: He was infected.
It took a moment for the truth to sink in. He had to overcome the initial shock.
He told his wife. He told his work.
They found out soon anyway. Gatta started wearing a mask at home trying to separate from his family the best he can. Today, Gatta says, he's recovered. But while he didn't have a fever, he says the sickness was comparable to the worst, longest-lasting flu he's ever experienced.
Today, he says, he doesn't know if he'd passed on the coronavirus to his kids — or if his kids passed the coronavirus to him. Children usually don't get symptoms and his kids never got tested.
"Hopefully, they've developed immunity from me," Gatta says, "Hopefully, they're not going to get sick or infected."
He'd never had chest pains, but he has now. He'd never had shortness of breath, but he has now. And the symptoms have had this eerie way of lingering.
But he's survived. He's going to donate his blood plasma to a Mayo Clinic plasma trial, so scientists can study the antibodies.
"I get to donate that and they get to put it into a patient who is knocking on death's door and needs those antibodies to fight the virus," Gatta says. "And so far the results have been promising."
And he's gone back to work.
But here, he adds a caveat — "potentially."
It's still unclear the degree to whether experiencing the illness grants you immunity — or for how long.
"But I can walk into work without as much fear," Gatta says. But he also knows that his co-workers don't have that luxury.
"My co-workers, God bless them, come into work selflessly, with the same fears and concerns," Gatta says. "'What is my financial situation? Are my kids gonna be taken care of? Am I gonna die today? Or tomorrow or a week or two weeks from now? What's gonna happen if I'm isolated from my kids or my family or if I'm in the hospital, what happens?'"
At least, that's what he believes they're thinking.
What about the single mom who works as a nurse who goes into work at the hospital? Gatta wonders. What about the environmental services workers who clean up rooms of a COVID patient?
"They single-handedly save more lives than any physician or surgeon or nurse practitioner," Gatta says. "Here's a guy who does the right thing does a good job, doesn't miss a spot, cleans up the whole room, and saves 20 lives or 20 people from being infected."
"I saw war and gunfire and grenades on the street at the age of 13," Gatta says. He lived as a refugee for months, fleeing back to his native India. But still, he says, this feels like the closest thing to war he's experienced.
"In a crisis, you know who you want in the battlefield, in the trench next to you," Gatta says. "And those are the ones you're fortunate enough to work next to."
And that struggle, he knows, is just beginning.
America's fight against the coronavirus, of course, started in Washington state. By March 18, 129 cases of the coronavirus had been tied to a single nursing home in Kirkland. At least 37 people died as a result.
Ultimately, Gatta says he's "actually proud" of how Washington state has risen to the challenge.
"We got infected earlier than any part of the country," Gatta says. "And we put into place isolation, social distancing, quarantining, and attempted to do contract tracing earlier than the rest of the country. We forced ourselves to do mitigation early."
Hospital administrators began inventorying face masks and respirators. Hospitals systems began shutting down elective surgeries, despite the serious hit to their bottom line.
And while some regional hospital systems — like Providence — have come under fire for their response to the crisis, Gatta praises MultiCare.
"All the senior leadership has taken pay cuts," Gatta says,
He's a lot less positive, however, about the United States' preparation as a whole.
"We just sort of evicted the whole pandemic prevention team. We were not prepared," Gatta says. "It’s not a huge leap to say that we were caught flat-footed."
By the time the federal government really started taking the pandemic seriously in mid-March, it had lost four to six weeks when it could have been getting ready, augmenting supplies of masks, tests and ventilators.
"There is no way to deny the fact that equals lives lost as a response. A delayed response led to people dying period," Gatta says. "It seems like they wanted to wish it away."
"The press conferences where they're allowed to speak are very reassuring to me as a physician, as a scientist, as a citizen," Gatta says. "But when the press conferences become more like political rallies, that is less reassuring. When their voices are being drowned out, by the inevitable polarization, that makes me feel like we're not following the science."
And even now, we don't have nearly enough tests, he says, a crucial necessity if we want to end the lockdown. He compares it to trying to drive at night using only the parking lights.
"We can barely see in front of ourselves," Gatta says. "We're slowly wading through the dark. We need headlights to turn on to allow us to see where we're going."
It's not just the United States, of course. Gatta thinks a lot about his former home of India, where crowding is inevitable and lockdowns have made poverty a lot worse.
"I'm insanely fearful. I have a lot of family there still. India is not prepared at all," Gatta says. "There is still a lot of suffering to be had. There's so much of the world that has yet to be decimated and it's going to remake societies. Maybe there's some hope for us in Washington state that we're past the worst. But there's so much of the world that is not."
Gatta expresses concern that as the United States begins to show signs of improvement, people will demand we stop making the sacrifices that led to those improvements.
"We're not out of the woods yet," he says. "We still have a number every new day, where we get new patients and new admissions... There's a false sense of security right now."
He compares the recent nationwide protests demanding governors opening up the economy to the spring breakers who packed beaches in Miami last month.
"We knew that some of those kids were going to get sick and die," Gatta says. "People just choose not to listen, and that's when they get hurt."
But here, he adds another caveat.
"Or it should win, at least," he says.