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May we never take for granted our senses of smell and taste

By BṺM TENORIO JR., The Philippine STAR Published Jul 30, 2021 6:00 am

My ongoing battle with COVID has taught me one stark reality: never take for granted the senses of smell and taste. I never realized that praying for the restoration of those senses would be immediate in my pleas.

I lost both senses on July 12. Today, July 26, is my official Day 12 as a COVID patient since I tested positive in the RT-PCR on July 15. It was only on Day 7 that I regained my sense of taste. My cough and colds were gone on Day 3. My sense of smell has yet to come back.

My sense of taste did not really abandon me. Only, for one week, I had weird taste buds. And it somehow drove me crazy. Never mind. At least, I could eat. (Big thanks to a medicine that contained steroids, which induced my appetite.)

 Loss of smell and taste is one of the most common signs of the disease.

How weird were my taste buds? The scrambled eggs tasted like bread drenched in water. Each morsel of steamed rice was like the head of a matchstick. (I know how that pulbura tasted like because I accidentally ingested that when I was a kid.) The super sour pork sinigang soup was rendered bland and blah. Unexciting. But the meat in the dish tasted like over-watered pork and beans in a can. The saltiness was absent, too. Kangkong and radish were like cellophane under my teeth. I ate them just the same.

I thought it was important to have my sense of smell back because it really was a different world without it. It rained for days and I could not even smell the earth, or the wet leaves of the himbaba-o trees, which were right outside my door.

Dr. Ely Obillo, my pulmonologist, had only these rules every day on Viber.

  1. Take all your meds regularly. Religiously. Be mindful of the time interval for medication.
  2. Eat complete, proper meals, with fruits and vegetables. Never mind if you can’t taste the food. Your body will still need all the nourishment.
  3. Survive!

Mind over matter

So, I did mind over matter. I just conditioned my brain that I was eating scrumptious food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But the truth was, even the famed, delicious Monay Bae was like two hard rocks dissolving in my mouth. And balut and penoy were like stale meat mixing with my saliva. Even the donuts were like sweet Super Glue. The fresh coconut in the rice cake tasted like scraped wood and the grated meat moved like some living thing in my mouth!

When apples rolled like soft, sweetened cardboard in my mouth and oranges tasted like juicy turnips, that was the time I told myself: “Bring it on! I will still eat!” So, I enjoyed every food served to me.

Doctor's advice: Eat complete meals with fruits and veggies to nourish the body.

Inside my brother’s house, my place of isolation, in my aloneness, I was not alone. The virus was threatening to wreak havoc on my mental state but I would not be cowed. It was very easy to give in — I was alone.

I couldn’t even open the windows of the one-story house for fear that the virus would escape through the windows and there are others who live in the compound. I heard voices in the other houses but I couldn’t be with them. Not yet. The virus was its own torturous act. But I was my own actor.

I turned to theater. Absurdity had its own merit, I laughed to myself. I had candlelight dinners on the nights of successive downpour. I fixed the table. I brought out plates and silverware. Or was it only in my imagination? I would do anything to survive the day. And played “Be My Guest.”

On other days, I was my own fitness instructor. I blasted the music of Madonna as I danced around the house, on top of the kitchen sink, inside the shower room, atop the bed, the sofa. I strutted like a supermodel, complete with exaggerated poses and pauses — all in the name of conquering the emotional bedlam brought about by the virus.

I decided to exercise because I had already rolls of flab on my belly, my chin had doubled and my cheeks moved like jelly. All the fat I had shed for seven months through biking for two hours a day was making a huge, wavy comeback.

Regaining my senses

On the day I was able to taste the totality of my brother Rod’s tochong bangus (milkfish in gingery broth with fermented soybean), I really cried. I was no fan of bangus. Yet, it was the first dish that truly registered on my taste buds — from the meat of the fish down to the milky fats. I was able to taste, too, the realness of ampalaya and kangkong in the dish. It was like magic — from blandness to a full, glorious spectrum of taste.

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From then on, every day would be a new discovery for my taste buds. Slowly, gently, the distinct taste of pork, beef, poultry also became very alive in my mouth. But always, always, I would have cravings for anything bangus.

I thought it was important to have my sense of smell back because it really was a different world without it. It rained for days and I did not even smell the earth, or the wet leaves of the himbaba-o trees, which were right outside my door.

For safety reasons, my sense of smell was all too important also. I almost accidentally burned the house of my brother because I forgot I was heating salabat one afternoon. I did some multi-tasking that time and forgot about the boiling salabat. I did not smell the burnt kaserola. I just saw black smoke billowing. That was danger lurking. From then on, as per the vernacular instruction of my mother, I should do only one task at a time.

“When you’re cooking in the kitchen, stay in the kitchen. Turn off the valve after cooking. Stay away from the kitchen as much as possible. When you’re reading, just read. When you’re in your computer, just be with your computer.”

I had also stayed away from the dining table and the refrigerator. I became conscious of the food I put in my mouth. Thank God to a friend who called to narrate her own COVID experience: “I was also a mild COVID patient survivor. I ate everything given me. By the time I was free of the virus, my sugar shot up and I became diabetic. So, please be careful.”

In my isolation, I clearly saw which ones in my life were important and what things should not even bother me. Sure, it was a mild case of the virus that felled me for days, ‘but the virus is treacherous, you have to be armed all the time,’ said my doctor.

I took a bath twice a day because I was always excited to lather myself with the suds of Irish Spring. But the scent had been hiding since July 12. Frustrating. But I stopped complaining. It was already a big miracle that I could taste my food again.

Silent retreat

I thought it was arrogance to burden God with a demand for my sense of smell. I am willing to wait. A week more, or in a month’s time. Or two, according to my doctor, who also recommended that I sniff coffee grains or blends. I always make a trip to the shower room to smell my favorite bath soap. To no avail.

Every day was a communication with God. I came to a point that I did not pray anymore to God to restore my sense of smell. I just said, “In your perfect time, God. I am going to wait.”

The best part of battling COVID was the time I spent in introspection. It was a silent retreat. I was a 100-percent, fully complying patient. I did not go out of the house, only opening the front door for less than five seconds to get the food delivered to me, set upon the monobloc chair.

In my isolation, I clearly saw which ones in my life were important and what things should not even bother me. Sure, it was a mild case of the virus that felled me for days, “but the virus is treacherous, you have to be armed all the time,” said my doctor. Dr. Obillo did not take any chances for the virus to lord it over my system so he recommended to me all the possible remedies. I complied.

In my journey, I discovered my unflinching faith, even as my doctor told me that my “full, safest clearance” from the virus would happen on Aug. 5. There were times that were unbearable but those were also the times when I knew some divine forces were working to my advantage. Every day, I waited for a miracle. Just when I thought at times that there was no miracle that took place on that day, I lay flat on my bed and did my breathing exercises. I felt God in my breathing. I was alive. I survived another day. Small progress was still progress. That was one big miracle already.

God was — and still is — my survival kit. *

Illustration by Hersam Sato