Midniters Singer Survives COVID-19: Shares Experience to Help Others

by Gregory Esparza

Gregory Esparza

I am Gregory Esparza, the singer for Thee Midniters, and I survived Covid-19 thanks to my best friend, writer and educator, Dr. Martha R. Gonzales and my cousin Dr. Elena Esparza, a licensed chiropractor and practitioner of natural medicine. They both helped to save my life from the virus. Before I go any further, I want to disclose that what worked for me against Covid-19, was a regiment of all-natural medicines and treatments. Still, I encourage everyone to consider all their health options when contending with this lethal novel coronavirus. In my case, what at first felt like having no options to fight the virus, because my health insurance policy ended the same week I began to fall ill, forced us to imagine alternative options as we reached out for help from Elena and she prescribed certain local indigenous herb and spice mixtures to help wage my body’s defense. 

My story begins when I went public with positive Covid-19 test-results on April 10, 2020, but what most people did not know, was I had already fought the virus from home beginning on Monday, March 23rd – April 6th when all my severe symptoms had subsided. The significance of this timeline means that we fought multiple symptoms without knowing for certain if I had the virus or not. Essentially, we fought to some extent blind, but all along took jabs at the virus with indigenous remedies. We hesitated to rush me to the hospital in fear of being around others with the virus and in fear of out of pocket costs, both equally concerning to us at that moment. Then there was a lot of confusion in the media about what symptoms to look for, such as a dry throat, and persistent cough coupled with chest pains and tightness, because my symptoms varied. At first, I thought maybe that slight tickle in my throat was allergies, since I felt no dryness. The tickle made me want to cough, but my body merely tensed up to prevent me from coughing. In many ways, tensing up was my body’s subconscious reaction because I did not want to spread my cough around the place where we lived. However, not too long after that tickle in my throat, a stomach ache set in. These symptoms did not match the media’s Covid-19 virus checklist, and I had been careful to not get sick, except for that last concert I did just 9 days prior on Saturday night, March 14, 2020.

After learning I tested positive for Covid-19 on April 10, 2020 most people wanted to know how I got it. I am the lead singer for Thee Midniters, a legendary East L.A. band from the 1960s and we were contracted to perform on March 14, 2020 at Buffalo Bill’s casino, inside their Star of the Desert Arena, a state line casino where California and Nevada meet about 227 miles outside of Los Angeles. This particular arena holds up to 6,000 people and for a sold-out show, during the pandemic, about two-thirds of the ticket holders still showed up, despite many cities and institutions like the NBA shutting down for quarantine just days before. However, it was a combination of the draw of a casino and the Latin Legends, such as, Thee Midniters, Malo, Tierra, El Chicano, and A Lighter Shade of Brown that brought the people out in much larger numbers than I had hoped. 

In mid-March, during the weekend of our show, the rule of the day was elbow bumps instead of handshakes, social distancing, and washing one’s hands frequently. Masks in California would not become the rule until about two weeks later, when California Governor Gavin Newsom made it so around April 5th. Before that, hardly anyone thought to wear gloves either, which the bands, the audience, and the casino, could have benefitted from while navigating new territory for an arena concert as well as for backstage etiquette during a pandemic. 

As for my personal thoughts. I was reluctant to do or promote any upcoming shows for weeks prior to March 14th. Nevertheless, being the lead vocalist of an 8-piece band under contract to perform, it was never my call to back out. As a matter of fact, no one from the band or the production company spoke to me about it or moved to cancel and so I felt pressured to show up. The one thing I could control was my social media and I deleted and un-tagged my name from all 2020 promotions I had shared since January; especially the 4-day weekend cruise ship getaways that were already sold out for May and September 2020. Transmission of Covid-19 on cruise ships seemed much higher within confined cruise ships than for people on land. Doctors Kenji Mizumoto and Gerardo Chowell published their estimation that the “mean reproduction number in the confined setting reached values as high as ~11, which is higher than the mean estimates reported from community-level transmission dynamics in China and Singapore (approximate range: 1.1-7).” Throughout February and March reports about the cruise ships were the first to capture our imaginations about travelers getting sick. I hoped by not providing information about my shows that I could dissuade concertgoers from coming out. I felt it was irresponsible to draw people out of their homes and into large crowds. But off we went into that Saturday night concert and we had an incredible show. I rationalized my role to bringing energy and upliftment for an audience that wanted to get away from the anxiety brought upon us from talk of the pandemic. Regardless of my messages about courageous love and energy, I felt that a happy immune system was stronger than a depressed one. Although I knew I was going into a highly vulnerable situation.

It could have been any number of moments that Saturday evening when I was exposed to someone sick with the virus. For starters, anyone asymptomatic, especially among a few thousand people in the arena, let alone the casino, made it so that it was just a matter of odds that someone was spreading the virus around without even knowing. Then as a lead vocalist, I used a microphone that was handled by a stage crew, sound crew, the emcees, and other vocalists from soundcheck to the actual show. Never mind the fact that I had my microphone sanitized at soundcheck. Once the concert was underway, I forgot to have them sanitize it again. Time moves fast when concerts get underway and friends and fans backstage maneuver for quick hellos and photo ops. And although security escorted me to and from the arena, at one point after the concert, a breakdown within the crowd occurred and many people with smiles pushed in for photos and social distancing ceased for about 2 to 3 minutes. Then I was in an elevator where a woman of all things holding a Corona beer in her hand began coughing and did not cover her mouth completely. My manager may have had a cold too. Then I attended a gathering after the concert with the other bands. It was not a small room, but there were still far too many of us together in that space, and I simply may have stayed too long. I mention all these mundane details to share how simple it was to experience a breakdown with social distancing when too many people are gathered together. Especially in spaces where people are celebrating the occasion of a concert, because eventually everyone’s guard fails and that is why we should never have been there to begin with.

I did not stay overnight at the casino and returned to Los Angeles in the early morning of March 15th. I came straight home and made it a point not to drop-in to visit my parents. I was happy when they and my sister decided not to attend my show and I knew there was a 2 to 14-day incubation period for the virus to surface if I had caught it. But I remember thinking that the evening of the show everyone looked happy, healthy, and in good spirits. I did not think anyone was sick and figured I would be fine and would be seeing my parents soon. For a few weeks prior to the concert and the week after I returned home, every day I tested myself by holding my breath to see if I could do it without coughing. But on Monday March 23rd I failed that test. I took in a breath and coughed. I tried it again and failed again. I could not hold my breath without coughing. It was definitely a canary in the coal mine moment, yet I thought it cannot be. Maybe it was just my allergies tickling my throat. Then I noticed my achy stomach and thought maybe it is a slight stomach flu. Unfortunately, by Tuesday multiple symptoms mounted all at once and quickly. I was definitely sick, but I remained somewhat uncertain if I had the actual virus. My partner I live with also began to feel sick and with no more health insurance coverage, my partner and I turned to my cousin, Dr. Elena Esparza. 

We spoke by phone and I provided the timeline and details of my symptoms that were as follows: Initially a tickle in my throat with light phlegm that gave me the urge to cough. My cough was productive and made translucent phlegm. Then came my stomach ache. I felt a nervousness and nausea in my stomach and dizziness when I walked. As soon as I ate anything, I needed to use the restroom. Next, I quickly progressed to a fever and intense chills that literally felt as if I were shaking me out of my body. Then came the shocking headache that lasted for two weeks. The shocks were these lightning bolt-type strikes that sporadically hit the top rear left side of my skull repeatedly in the same place. There were at least four to five memorably painful days and nights, and I recall never being able to sleep through the night. Even to lightly brush my hair with my hand caused pain and discomfort where the shocks hit my head. I tried massaging my left temple and making a fist to apply pressure to relieve any pain, but nothing worked. I talked myself through the pain and got frustrated with Martha when she gave me more water to drink. It was just a few days in and I asked her how long this was going to last. She said at times I was delusional. I lost all sense of taste and smell. I remember eating a bagel that felt and tasted like cardboard. At times my head felt heavy and other times it felt light and detached from my body when I would stand or walk. My coughing came in uncontrollable bursts that caused more pain in my head, as if I had sinus trouble, but I had no nasal blockage. Coughing took my breath away and I would regain my composure and shortness of breath rhythm by as calmly as possible breathing through my nose. With all these symptoms attacking at once, eventually I found sleep from sheer exhaustion as the combined ailments worked to zap my entire body of its strength and energy. There were nights that shook my mind. I did not know if this was it. Were things going to get worse? I wondered if I fell asleep if I was going to wake up again and to what other pain. Prior to calling Elena, I did what I normally do for colds and flus, which meant Dayquil and Nyquil along with lots of sleep, hot tea, and gargling saltwater. However, Dr. Esparza advised me to stop taking over-the counter medicine because it was could be shutting down my body’s natural defenses against the virus. This meant by the third night of feeling sick, I ditched the over-the-counter remedies and we mounted a fight with natural remedies, vitamins, and other treatments.

In a phone appointment Dr. Esparza asked questions about my diet, allergies, and other habits. We made a checklist of herbs and spices we had in our kitchen, along with others we needed to gather. These herbs and spices included: turmeric, ginger powder, peppermint dried leaves, garlic powder, clove grounded, cinnamon ground, black pepper, cumin, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Then we looked to Vitamins C, D, fish oil pills, zinc, and Andrographis complex. Dr. Esparza provided measurements for each herb and spice that my partner mixed into my teas and soups that made them extra hot and spicier than normal. All these ingredients worked to heat up the hard-outer shell of that invisible Covid-19 virus inside my body, because we believed that the hard, outer shell weakened with heat. 

Despite my new regimen of natural remedies, by the fourth night of being sick, my fever and chills found me increasingly with shortness of breath. That is when Dr. Esparza and my partner shifted gears and moved to induce my fever to break it. This involved sitting in a hot tub of water, as hot as I could stand it, while covering my back and head with a hot soaked towel and pouring hot water over my head for 20 minutes. I also drank hot tea while I sat in the tub. Once I was out of the tub, a shocking cold water-soaked bedsheet was draped over my back and head and I was directed to sleep within many layers of heavy blankets that essentially created a personal sweat lodge where I laid on the floor for the remainder of the night. Steam rose from my entire body and I was instructed not to get out of this one-man lodge, not even to urinate if I had to. I slept heavily, and thankfully never urinated. When I awoke the severe chills and fever were gone.

After breaking the fever, I stopped eating solid foods and did a cleanse for three days by drinking brine and lots of water to prevent from dehydrating. The cleanse addressed my stomach ache. After three days my appetite returned, and I could taste and smell things again. With the fever and stomach ache gone, a third victory soon followed when I breathed in the eucalyptus essential oil from droplets put into steamed water. My partner covered my head with towels and blankets to capture the steam as I breathed it in for up to 8 minutes in duration and sometimes twice per day. After the first time I did the eucalyptus essential oil treatment, it cleared the phlegm and tickle from my throat. The odd thing was, although the tickle was gone from my throat, when I tried to breath in deeply, I still burst into a cluster of coughs. My shortness of breath and shocking headache remained into the second week. There was dizziness when I walked, and fatigue was prevalent too. Although these and other symptoms remained, they eventually began to subside to where I felt fairly well and free of them by April 6, 2020.

My path for being tested for Covid-19 was a much longer process that lasted until May 24, 2020 when I shared that I was virus free. At one point, during my two-week physical battle with Covid-19, I obtained a new health insurance policy and went to an ER. I wanted to test while I still suffered from my lessening symptoms, such as slight chills, dizziness when I’d walk, my nonstop shocking headache, shortness of breath, and fatigue. However, the hospital I visited was a reflection of the nation’s narrative in the media, that test kits were still not abundantly available. It seemed they did not want to waste a test on me when the doctor said, “Your vitals look fine. We’re not going to test you and we’re not going to give you any antibiotics. You either have one of three things; the cold, the flu, or the virus.” He advised me to return home and treat it like the flu and if I got to the point to where I felt like I was drowning when trying to breathe, then to come back. In other words, the hospitals prioritized test kits for anyone they deemed critical. I thought that if I waited until I felt like I was drowning when trying to breath, then it would be too late. Goodbye life. I was sent home despite stating that I had found out another singer from the concert I performed at tested positive for Covid-19. And that guy was in critical condition in an induced coma at the VA hospital. But it did not matter. I was not angry at the doctors, but I had hoped for more support and information. It turned out that the more I probed for answers to my questions, that doctors were learning just as much from us as we patients were hoping to learn from them. When I returned home, I secured an appointment with a local doctor willing to test me for the virus on April 4. It took three phone interviews and convincing them that we broke my fever about one week prior and they finally agreed to see me. 

On the day of my appointment, we entered through a back entrance and I was asked to enter the first room we saw at the end of their hallway. I was administered a nasal swab test that made my legs kick a little from the discomfort. The doctor said in about 5 to 6 days the results would be ready. That’s when on April 10 I got confirmation that I was indeed positive. It was odd to learn my status after the initial physical fight with the virus, and to know it was still inside me. That whole day I contemplated if I should share my status publicly. I felt a sense of embarrassment and shame for catching the virus and wondered if I would be stigmatized, but beyond that I felt a larger sense to share my experience and list of symptoms because they varied greatly from most of the articles I read in the media. I did however find many similarities with testimonies from New York survivors and some videos made by television journalist Chris Cuomo. For instance, I suffered many more symptoms than the typical dry throat, incessant cough, and tightness of chest. While loss of taste and smell was not originally on the list of CDC symptoms, many New Yorkers described experiencing it too. Eventually the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization expanded their list of symptoms that began to match better to the things I endured. My other goal for sharing was about informing others within my social networks and community to help anyone recognize symptoms and hope that they would act quickly to start fighting the virus immediately; even before being tested. To me, the sooner one mounted a fight the better their chances to weather its lethal wrath.

I tested for a second time on April 24, 2020. This time we did a nasal swab, mouth swab, and serology test to check my antibodies. I was going on three weeks of feeling well and was somewhat surprised to learn I tested positive again. Equally surprising was to learn that the doctors could not tell me for certain how long the virus might stay in my system. The good news was my serology test indicated that my body was mounting a strong natural defense. I returned home and remained in isolation just as I had since testing positive the first time. This had entailed signing an agreement with the Los Angeles County Health Department to remain isolated for two weeks. However, the second time around it was doctor’s orders, along with instructions to leave only for emergencies or doctor visits. On May 18th I did my third test and by the 22nd of May I got my negative test results for Covid-19.

Since my last concert, all my shows for 2020 were canceled until 2021, which I am completely okay with. As a singer songwriter with a career in music and entertainment for the past 22 years, unlike essential workers, I was afforded the privileged time to stay home and wage my fight and maintain a steady regimen of natural remedies and treatments for my health. From the night of my last concert until I received my negative test results, about 69 days went by, which says much about asymptomatic people and how long they can carry the virus; maybe for at least two months before it is completely gone from their body if you consider my experience. My colleague Jerry Salas of El Chicano, from the same concert eventually spent about 85 days at the Veteran’s Hospital fighting for his life against this virus. And so, I am worried about my Mexican American, Chicana/o/x, Latina/o/x community members that are pulled from the safety of their homes while in quarantine, to have to be in public spaces fulfilling jobs under working conditions that expose them to others who could be sick. In particular, having to face other people who refuse to wear masks to the detriment of all of us. So, it is no surprise to see a second order of beach closures and requiring that masks be worn in public spaces once again by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Thousands of people from the Latina/o/x community do not have the privilege to work from home. In addition, since it became evident through my experience that it can take at least two months or more for the virus to be completely undetectable or purged from one’s body, it exposes the danger in our country’s unwillingness to provide funds for all people to stay safely at home. My brother works at a distribution center in California where currently over 100 workers have tested positive for the virus. They are afforded only 14 days paid leave to get well and then must return to work to make their money. Economic pressures pull these workers back into unsafe and unsanitary working conditions where “capitalist logic,” a term Noam Chomsky described as a system where workers are treated as expendable, is in effect. It is a system of corporate profits over the quality of life for people. My brother explained how coworkers that tested positive said company doctors told them that eventually everyone will catch the virus. Evidently this company is not working to curb the virus as best as it can. They have opted to weather the virus from what sounds more like a herd immunity approach, because 14 days off will not assure those already infected will not infect the others that have not gotten sick. 

In closing, I shared my experience and will continue doing so for my community and for those that reach out. Since coming out in early April I get contacted on a daily basis from strangers to friends on behalf of others or for themselves if they feel sick. Yesterday, an L.A. musician connected me to someone in Brazil and a few weeks back I spoke to a guy in Tijuana. Two-days ago a friend called for her cousin and just a moment ago I got off the phone with a friend connected only by social media. We spoke for the first time and he explained having high blood pressure, a feeling of tightness in his chest, dry throat, and having trouble breathing. I shared with him what I knew and was happy to hear he was in the parking lot of a clinic waiting to see a doctor. With anxieties high, everyone is looking for answers while we navigate a lethal virus with no vaccine available. See a doctor as soon as you can and know that natural remedies can also help you along. At the end of our conversation, this friend expressed that his anxiety level dropped somewhat, and he was slightly more at ease. It brings to mind the power of conversation with information that I was more than happy to share. At the end of the day, we need to take care of each other. Because no one is coming to save us but us. In my case, when I was down, the East Los Angeles village came through for me and I will continue to do my part until we are well past the wrath of Covid-19. Be safe, be well, stay diligent.

Fall 2020, No. 46 No. 1

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