Life in quarantine

Lake Placid business owner shares COVID-19 quarantine experience

Lake Placid business owner Tim Chien poses in front of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on Broadway in Saranac Lake Tuesday, Nov. 3. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — Tim Chien had done everything right.

The local licensed massage therapist screened all of his clients for risk factors, ensured that his practice either followed or exceeded the state’s public health guidelines, washed his hands frequently and he wore ample personal protective equipment — including two masks, goggles and smocks.

It was on Sept. 18 that Chien experienced what so many others have gone through during the course of the last few months of the pandemic. Fear of an exposure to the novel coronavirus and of contracting COVID-19.

It was a Friday when it happened. He had an appointment with a client who passed the health screening at Chien’s business, Balanced Bodywork and Massage in Lake Placid. That client wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, but the person had been tested a few days prior and were awaiting test results. Those results ultimately took about 10 days to come back.

When the results did come back, Chien’s client reached out to him to let him know. Then, the county Health Department called. He was identified as a close contact and needed to quarantine.

“Up until this exposure to a positive client on Sept. 18, we haven’t had any incidents, and we haven’t had any exposures. There wasn’t much going on in the community as far as community spread,” Chien said. “When that happened, we were thinking we were prepared for it. For the most part, it wasn’t too unexpected. My own personal experience was not something I was fully prepared for.”

Chien had already experienced the economic toll of COVID-19. Balanced Bodywork and Massage voluntarily closed in March, a few days before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York on PAUSE order. Before the business closed, they’d had eight therapists working there.

“At that time, we were all thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be a few weeks that we’ll have to close,'” Chien said. “A few weeks turned into three months.”

The company’s workforce changed, from eight therapists down to four therapists, though “really only two” worked throughout the summer, he said.

Now, Chien was experiencing not only the economic toll, but a personal one. When he found out that he might’ve been exposed to the virus, he was, of course, concerned.

“Your first thinking is that, ‘I have the virus. I’ve been exposed to the virus, I’m going to get the virus.’ There’s the fear of that,” he said. “And it’s almost like the stigma of the virus is worse than the virus itself. That’s more what seemed to get me. What is this going to mean for the workplace? What is this going to mean for the office? What is this going to mean for my clients? What is this going to mean for my household? Less so about how it’s going to effect my health and me personally.”

Chien quickly canceled his appointments with clients. A representative from the county Health Department, a nurse, got in touch with him and told him what to do.

“They seemed like they were organized through it, they had a definite protocol and it was somewhat reassuring, their guidance as far as who was considered a contact, who wasn’t considered a contact,” he said. “They weren’t concerned about the business still being open. There had been enough time that went by by the time I got the notice that there was little, if any, risk of exposure from that primary contact to anyone else.”

Chien was told he couldn’t leave his property in Saranac Lake.

“This was really one of the harder things to bear,” he said. “And luckily for me, I have enough space on the property that I can walk in the woods and be outside. It’s not like I was locked into a small space. We have a cabin that I moved into during this, so I wasn’t exposing my niece, who lives with us, and Shelley (his partner).”

A person from the Health Department contacted Chien each day via text to ask if he had any symptoms. He didn’t.

“I was constantly evaluating my symptoms,” he said. “And I remember this from the spring… when we had our first experience with it, thinking about the virus. I’d notice tightness in my chest and think, ‘Oh god, here it is.’ But it was just anxiety. And I was experiencing that.”

Quarantined and spending a lot of time at home alone, Chien didn’t have his usual therapy, his usual ways of coping.

“Of course I’m a massage therapist. I thrive on touch and there was none of that,” he said. “I wrote a lot, journaled. I reached out to people, friends, just virtually. Spent a lot of time just thinking. I’d still do stuff around the property, do some projects. I’m a cyclist so I have this virtual cycling program that I can do. I was able to stay pretty active, and that was important, and in contact with people virtually.”

Chien had a decision to make: Would he tell others about his exposure, or not? Ultimately, he shared his story on social media.

“The fear is worse than the actual thing that you’re afraid of. I knew that people would be concerned, my clients would be concerned. It was the quickest way to reach out to a lot of people and just be transparent,” he said. “I was also aware at the time that there were exposures around and other businesses weren’t being as transparent. Some were, like the (Lake Placid Pub & Brewery). So I just followed their lead. They were transparent.”

Chien also wanted to open up a constructive discussion. If they’d done something wrong, or could’ve done something better, he wanted to know.

The response to his story was overwhelmingly positive.

“It made the difference in my own feelings,” he said. “I was extremely grateful for everyone who reach out, and expressed their support or their appreciation for the information. I feel like there has just been so much disinformation, or so much trying to skew the information to a certain viewpoint. I really just wanted to be as transparent as possible and reveal the actual facts and experience. I think people appreciated that realism.

“It was also therapeutic for me,” he added. “In the end, it just helped me feel good about the practices we had in place, the process the county used to have some controls in place. It seemed reasonable to me.”

There’s so much we don’t know yet about the virus, he said.

“We just don’t know, so it’s best to be cautious,” he said. “As a professional, you can do nothing else.”

When Chien left quarantine, he took a run around his neighborhood. He was still feeling nervous, though he was fairly certain by that time that he didn’t have the virus. He’d been getting tested regularly, and got tested again shortly after leaving quarantine.

“I went on a run around the neighborhood and went to work. I felt great. It makes you appreciate just being able to do what you want to do,” he said.

Chien never received his test results from the hospital. He checked the online result portal every day, but after 10 days, he was never notified. He ultimately called the hospital and was told the good news.

He was negative.

For those who are in quarantine now, or might be quarantined in the future, Chien has some advice.

“You need a support system. Reach out to people and be real about your experience. There are people who you don’t even know that are willing to help you. A support system is so needed because maybe you need to feed yourself. You can’t go out and get food. But it’s also … you need that contact wit people so you don’t just wallow and get into loneliness. I was really grateful for my friends and family,” he said. “I would also say to people, if you know someone in quarantine, reach out to them and express support and do something positive. That’s the neighborly and friendly thing to do.

“(Quarantine) is also a great opportunity to do things around the house that you’ve been putting off,” he added with a smile. “Projects. I journaled, which was helpful. It’s good to be able to check a few things off the list.”

Though he ultimately tested negative, Chien urged others to continue to be cautious.

“I would urge everyone to keep up your protocols. Nothing has changed,” he said. “There’s more risk now than there was in the spring because there’s more people here.”