Arlington, VA

There was a moment when Ahmad Ayyad, owner of Darna Lounge at Virginia Square, was sure COVID-19 was going to kill him.

“When I went to [Sibley Memorial Hospital in D.C.] and they intubated me and I woke up in Baltimore at [Johns Hopkins Hospital],” Ayyad said. “I had this tube and all these things connected to me. I texted my best friend ‘I think I’m going to die.'”

In March, Ayyad was starting to feel weak and a little under the weather when talk of COVID-19 spreading across the United States was just starting. With no coughing or fever, Ayyad said at first he thought it was just a cold, but after a few days he found that he wasn’t getting better.

“I went to the hospital just to get medication, then I went to Sibley and they put me in and the next thing you know, it’s oxygen and they might have to put you into a coma. And at that point, you’re like ‘What, woah, me?'”

Ayyad said he was one of the first people in Hopkins with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

“I was a guinea pig,” Ayyad said. “They didn’t know much of what to do with me about how to help me. They didn’t really have the knowledge that we have now.”

As he was lying in the hospital, Ayyad said he not only had to tell his parents what was happening but had to warn them away from coming to the hospital to see him in what might have been his final hours. Even after the disease has passed, Ayyad said that’s the part that still haunts him. Ayyad said he still thinks of what his parents went through: crying themselves to sleep and waking up at 6 a.m. to call the doctor just to hear that Ayyad is still stable.

“The hardest thing was hearing what my parents went through,” Ayyad said.

Meanwhile, Ayyad said being in quarantine inside the hospital was a lonely and isolating experience.

“You’re kind of, like, stuck on an island by yourself and you have no one to talk to or encourage you, anything to feel like you have someone on your side,” Ayyad said. “You’re just stuck in the room.”

Recovery for Ayyad has been slow, especially for someone who said he took a lot of pride in being in shape. Even over a month after his release, Ayyad said he still suffers shortness of breath when he works out. Progress has been a slow build: from moving around on a walker to walks around the neighborhood and eventually to weight training.

Ayyad, a fitness buff and marathon runner, lost 60 pounds and much of his muscle tone while in the hospital.

“My determination has never been higher,” he said. “You look in the mirror and see the COVID in your body. I’m determined to get my body back to what it looked like before.”

After his release, Ayyad said he’s been very wary of the virus and its spread through the community. In the early days of the pandemic, Ayyad admitted to being a little cavalier about activity, including a trip to Florida the week before he started showing symptoms.

Having the virus changed that, and Ayyad said he’s not only wary but tries to warn his friends against being too active.

“I wonder if we will ever get back to normalcy,” Ayyad said. “I’m still nervous as I go out. People come in for a hug, and I don’t want the hug. People are texting you, calling you, messaging you and when you run into them they want to touch you and it’s hard to say no. Sometimes you’re just like ‘Please don’t have COVID.'”

However, that hasn’t stopped Darna from reopening this past Friday, at 50% capacity. “Champagne is in great supply… see you tonight,” said a social media post today.

Ayyad said he’s become particularly been concerned about his parents.

“You’re a lot more protective of your parents, saying ‘why are you going to the grocery store all the time?'” he said.

Ayyad said he still gets flashbacks to the hospital whenever he hears stories about COVID-19. He said he’s still trying to wrap his mind around what happened.

“Coming back home, walking into my house, it’s a feeling that it’s somewhat over,” Ayyad said. “[But] you still don’t know what happened. I’d been awake for a little over two weeks and you’re still trying to put together what happened.”

Photos courtesy Ahmad Ayyad

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