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Bodybuilder living in fear of the coronavirus: ‘It felt good to survive another day’

Tiffany Salmon opens up about life in New York with autoimmune disorder

For most people, a trip to the local convenience store is a breeze: Run in, grab what you need and leave. For me, as I recently sat in my car outside the 7-Eleven not far from my home in Brooklyn, it proved to be the early stages of a full-blown panic attack.

I sat rigidly in that driver’s seat for what felt like hours, trying to build up enough nerve to get out. Reaching repeatedly to open the door didn’t help, not when each time I’d abruptly pull my hand back. I was so frantic that I called a friend, who did her best to calm my nerves.

At one point I closed my eyes and cried.

Under different circumstances, I’m a woman who represents strength — I’m a bodybuilder, I’m 5 feet, 11 inches tall and I’m strong enough in the gym to squat three plates [that’s about 315 pounds]. But as a woman who has an autoimmune disorder while living in the city with the fastest-growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in America, I join the other residents of this city — and this country — who now live in constant fear.

Some people hide their fears of the coronavirus with social media jokes and memes — everybody’s afraid of catching ‘the Rona.’ To me, there’s very little to joke about.

Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with hidradenitis suppurativa [just call it HS, to keep it simple], which is a malfunction within the hair follicles in my sweat glands. And here’s what happens when I experience flare-ups: I develop abscesses near my groin, my armpits and my legs, which cause pain that is, at times, unbearable.

To treat my condition, I have to take immunosuppressants that, when I take them, reduces the strength of my immune system. So, living in a world with the rapid spread of a highly contagious virus that has no vaccine, I’m forced to be extra careful because the drugs I take — prednisone, antibiotics and Siliq [which is a biologic that I’m required to take once a week] — cause my immune system to be suppressed.

Tiffany Salmon wins second place in the Figure Class B at the 2019 NPC East Coast Championships.

Courtesy Tiffany Salmon

You might be wondering how is it that I’m able to compete as a bodybuilder [that’s a hobby; my career is working with individuals with developmental disabilities] while facing all of these medical issues.

It’s incredibly challenging.

I got interested in bodybuilding five years ago, and the main reason was because I was overweight. I’ve never been a big food eater, but I loved my snacks. Chocolate and sweets made me weak in my knees, and some of my greatest joy was stopping in at the local bodegas here in Brooklyn and buying chocolate cakes and those Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.

Looking back, I can describe my lifestyle in my early and mid-20s as reckless: unhealthy eating habits, too many drinks downed at happy hours while hanging with my friends and just enjoying the life that New York had to offer. Living a life that lacked discipline, it’s no surprise that my weight ballooned to 245 pounds.

It’s not like I didn’t want to get my weight issues under control. I was that ‘next Monday’ person: ‘I’m going to start eating healthy next Monday, I’m going to work out next Monday, I’m going to be more disciplined next Monday.’ And one day I decided, on my own, that there’s no need to wait until next Monday. I need to adopt a healthier lifestyle now.

My lifestyle changed, starting with my eating. I began hitting the gym and, as the weight came off, I became more and more excited about the noticeable results. I dropped 65 pounds on my own before I came across the Instagram page of Michelle Lewin, a world-renowned bodybuilder and fitness guru, which inspired me.

In time, I enjoyed going to the gym just as much as I loved those Zebra Cakes [which I really miss]. I take the necessary precautions working out: I don’t hit the weights near other gym visitors, and I carry a bag filled with antibacterial sprays and wipes, which I use to thoroughly wipe down the equipment. Clearly I was not going to be deterred from finding that better me.

The dedication and discipline I’ve acquired has truly helped save me from myself. Hearing my name called as the second-place finisher in the Figure class of the 2019 NPC East Coast bodybuilding event — having overcome weight and physical challenges — represents one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.

My life, since I was diagnosed with HS at the age of 19, stopped being normal. I don’t have many visitors, and on those rare occasions I do, they have to sanitize themselves from head to toe and they’re not allowed to touch me. So in that regard for the past few years, I haven’t been able to hug my mother or sister, even though they both live above my basement apartment in the building our family owns.

Each time I leave my apartment, I have a routine when I get back: My clothes come off, they’re immediately put into the washer and I jump into the shower. And then I can sit down on my sofa and try to calm myself down, knowing I might be forced to enter the line of fire the next day.

Like everyone else, I want the restrictions that have resulted from COVID-19 gone. While there’s a lot I avoid with my disorder, I do miss going out to my favorite restaurants [I wipe the table and utensils down and don’t touch anyone], the ability to work out at the gym and the opportunity to move around freely without looking at everyone you encounter and fearing who might be contagious.

But then you see people being reckless, from the kids partying in Florida during spring break to the politicians who seem anxious to get life back to normal, and seriously wonder if the risk levels will end anytime soon.

My life is even more at risk with the condition that I have while living in a city where, if you see the news reports, doesn’t have enough protective masks, hospital beds and respirators to treat patients. I don’t want to face the uncertainty of what kind of medical care I would receive in a profession that is currently in crisis.

That uncertainty is what kept me in my car for more than a half-hour before, after all the anxiety, I finally worked up enough nerve to walk inside.

Thank goodness there was a 10-person limit on customers inside. But even with social distancing, I felt like people were on top of me. Those patrons may have looked at me and saw strength, having little knowledge of the fear I was experiencing.

After arriving home and going through my thorough disinfecting routine, I settled into my apartment and breathed a sigh of relief.

In my world of suffering from an autoimmune disorder in the city that’s now the epicenter for COVID-19 in the United States, it felt good to survive another day.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.