One year ago in February, Monica Yeung Arima and her husband, Adrian Arima, were celebrating his 70th birthday with their tour mates during a trip to Egypt. One week later, on March 3, they became ill with COVID-19 and landed in Stanford Hospital.
The Arimas were among the first Palo Altans to be diagnosed with the deadly coronavirus, which has now killed more than 500,000 Americans. Monica Arima became seriously ill and spent two weeks in the hospital. One of the first patients to receive the drug remdesivir in an early clinical trial, she began to recover within days of treatment, she recalled.
Arima recuperated at home for a while longer, and she still experiences some health problems a year later: shortness of breath and congestion. She isn't sure if COVID-19 is to blame or if it's caused by her self-imposed lifestyle changes during the pandemic, she said. She hasn't been to the gym in a year.
An eternal optimist, she took her recovery from COVID-19 in relative stride.
"I believe in fate. I was scared when I got this disease, but I just dealt with it," she said. "I just try to solve it. I think it's the engineer in me."
Surviving COVID-19 hasn't blunted her caution toward the disease, however. She follows the research and is aware that her immunity might not protect her against the virus' variants. She also doesn't know how long her immunity will last.
"I'm not too, too worried — as long as I'm in protective gear," she said. "I feel I have some immunity, but I still wear my mask and socially distance and do all of the things other people do."
Some people also seem apprehensive around her, knowing she had the disease — another reason why she still takes many visible precautions, she said.
"Since I was sick, some people are very paranoid about it, and I feel it," she said.
Over the past year, Arima says she's also grown concerned about another type of pandemic: xenophobia. Some people have used the virus' origins in China as an excuse for violence — the latest chapter in the long history of racism against Asian Americans in the United States. She says she saw hatred rising a few years ago as political rhetoric turned more anti-immigrant.
It feels more daunting than the virus itself, she said.
"The (coronavirus) doesn't kill me. It's the hate crime that kills me," she said.
Arima herself hasn't been attacked, but fears of victimization are limiting people's sense of freedom, she said. Now people look out for each other in ways that never happened before, she said.
"People say, 'I'll walk you to the car.' It's a gesture to be safe. The security of our Asian Americans is being violated," she said.
Overall, Arima feels fortunate to have survived COVID-19. After a month of isolation and recovery, the first thing she did when she tested negative for the virus was to enjoy her garden. It's the place where she finds solace and connection to nature, she said.
As it is for other people, the pandemic shutdown has taken away many things she used to enjoy to the fullest: gatherings with friends, travel and seeing family.
"I miss the social life I had. I miss the freedom of being able to travel around. Life under COVID has been more sedentary.
"We watch more TV than normal. I don't cook as much. We buy more food (from restaurants). On average, four to five days a week, we order from outside," she said.
"Before COVID, I had lost weight. After COVID, I gained every single drop back."
Arima does go out with one or two friends to walk or to socialize, but the luncheons with a large group are on hold for now. Zoom meetings fill some of the void.
Arima has used her experience with COVID-19 to further scientific research. She has volunteered in two studies at Stanford University School of Medicine, including one investigating the mental health impacts of the coronavirus, she said.
On Feb. 20, she and her husband discussed their experiences with the virus in a Zoom webinar with doctors from Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. The event attracted 500 people, she said.
She also has found a philosophical silver lining in the pandemic.
"The society is moving so fast — too fast for anybody to catch up," she said of the Bay Area's frenetic pace.
But things happen in life to make people change their pace.
"Sometimes it slows down so we can stop and smell the roses," she said.
Arima has taken that adage to heart. Her family has bonded more since her son is working from home now, and the Arimas also have rediscovered long-forgotten, simple joys.
"We went to a drive-in movie. We haven't gone to a drive-in for years," she said.