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‘The Most Brutal Flu’: Chicago Actor Describes His Battle With Coronavirus

Mitchell Fain has performed at Northlight Theatre, Second City, The Factory Theater, Theater Wit and on television.

Mitchell Fain, before and after his COVID-19 infection.
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ANDERSONVILLE — One of hundreds of Chicagoans battling a COVID-19 infection is actor Mitchell Fain, who describes his last two weeks as the “most brutal flu” he’s ever had.

Fain, 52, remains in his Andersonville home, and although he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, he’s aware he’s not out of the woods yet.

He spoke to Block Club Chicago on Sunday to share his experience and give hope to those who suddenly find themselves in a similar situation.

Fain has graced the stages of many Chicago theaters, including the Northlight Theatre, Second City and The Factory Theater. He’s appeared in television productions and starred as the wickedly sarcastic elf Crumpet for a decade in the David Sedaris’ play “The Santaland Diaries” at Theater Wit. He credits his strong network of friends, his ability to take deep breaths — something he says most actors must be good at — and his being in good physical shape (he’s also performed for years at the Midnight Circus In The Parks) for helping him get through what he hopes is the worst stage of the illness.

Fain isn’t positive about where he caught the virus, but said he was in Key West with friends the week of March 11 and some friends got ill. Although they were not tested for coronavirus, they self-isolated and Fain decided to fly back to Chicago on the March 16. Upon landing, Fain said he began feeling ill. 

“By the time I got off the plane I felt sick. I got home and didn’t even take off my clothes. I got into my apartment, put my bag down, took off my shoes and with my jacket, pants, hat and gloves I crawled into bed,” Fain said. “I was so tired, I had fever and chills. I couldn’t stop shaking. I literally fully clothed crawled into bed and then hours later messaged my doctor.”

The next day, his doctor helped him get tested at Howard Brown Health — something he feels is more helpful for healthcare than for the individual person.

“The testing is irrelevant at this point, in my opinion,” Fain said. “If your symptoms are real bad, go to the hospital. If your symptoms are mild, stay home and treat your symptoms. …. We’re obsessing about these tests and we need the tests to know how many people have it and in what clusters, but on a personal level, to become paranoid about testing does no good.”

While waiting for his results, which eventually came back positive, Fain was alone at his apartment, worried about getting worse.

“I’m home. I’m alone. I’m sick. I don’t know what the test results are. I’m monitoring my symptoms but I don’t know at what point the symptoms are dangerous. What’s the line? How much is too much of a temperature? How much is too much coughing? You don’t know because you’re all by yourself and you can’t be monitored,” Fain said.

For ten days he had a temperature between 100 and 102.7 degrees, along with a consistent, dry cough. Fain said his case was mild compared to those that have had to be hospitalized. However, along with the virus, Fain also developed an infection he believes resulted from the nurse who tested him — leading to pain that he said was harder to deal with than the virus itself.

“When they swab you, it’s a special swab that has to go very deep into your nose, into your sinuses. I’m not mad nor do I feel litigious or anything, and the girl who swabbed me was very nice, but she swabbed me in one of my nostrils too intensely,” Fain said. “She cut or punctured something, I don’t know what happened but a couple nights later I had an infection that led to pain in my face that I’ve never experienced in my life and I’ve survived cancer and had five kidney stones and broken several ribs. But the pain that I felt for three days, alone in my apartment, with a face looking like the kid from the movie ‘Mask’ — to describe it as brutal is the understatement of my century. It felt like Mike Tyson was punching me in the teeth every 3 minutes for three days.”

Fain has yet to go three days without any medicine or symptoms — something the doctors told him must occur before he could consider leaving his place for an essential errand.

“I’m in good shape, I eat healthy. I get a decent amount of exercise. I’m very conscious of my body and how to breath. One of the important things in the monitoring of your symptoms is making sure that there is nothing going on with your breath. So, the ability to take deep, meaningful breaths the way that athletes and actors know how has quite literally saved my life,” he said.

Fain also credits the recent legalization of marijuana to helping him deal with the symptoms.

“The only thing that calmed me and allowed me to deal with my symptoms is an edible, indica strain, gummy candy. Just 5 mg, low dose. It’s the only thing that allowed me to take a moment to relax. It helped me sleep,” Fain said, adding that during his battle he’s also taken Tylenol, DayQuil, NyQuil and Mucinex DM at times. On Sunday, he was feeling much better but was aware that his battle isn’t over quite yet.

“According to the doctors, you need to have three full days without symptoms. Three days without fever, without cough, without taking medicine and then you are pretty much in the clear and can run essential errands,” Fain said.

“Today’s been my second day so far with no fever but I still have a mild cough that I’m taking medicine for, so when the cough goes away I will begin counting my days.

“I think I have at least another week of complete and total lockdown, which sucks. I’m in a very tiny, adorable apartment and I’m starting to lose my goddamned mind. But, I’m grateful and I’m not rushing. There’s nothing to rush back to because the reality is this thing hasn’t even hit Chicago yet. We are seeing the beginnings of it. We need to slow our roll and stop thinking about April 15 or whatever date people gave us and stay home.”

More than medicine, Fain said the biggest factor in his recovery has been his friends — and even though he’s isolated by himself in his apartment, he has felt their love and been helped by their acts of kindness.

“The one thing I’ve learned more than anything is something I’ve always known. I’ve always been a person who has been very blessed with the friends in my life. Not just the number but the quality of my friends. …And just because some of them have Oscars or Pulitzers or Kennedy Center honors, that’s not the measure of why they are the best friends in the world. The people who have rallied around me for the past 12 days, I have not wanted for food or medicine or soup or a kind word or just to be left alone. It’s been extraordinary,” Fain said. 

“Just to know that I’m burning up and I need popsicles and someone brings popsicles to my back door. Or, I’m losing my mind and it’s three in the morning, can I call you? And a friend says, ‘Yes, I’m up, call me right now. Or, I said something snarky on Facebook and my friend Rachel does a dramatic reading of the thing that I said on Facebook because she knows it will make me laugh.

“The point is, that kind of support — the heat went out in the building and immediately got a space heater. It’s also very dry in here and a friend from California buys me a humidifier and gets it to my house. The support I have is extraordinary and if there’s any lesson for the people stuck at home sick, it’s that you can get through this. It’s brutal and it will be the worst flu you’ve ever had, but stay home and rely on the people who love you. Stay home.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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