Contributor's Corner: Catching Up With Writer and Photographer Sasha Turrentine

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Contributor's Corner is a new series in which we talk to writers, photographers, and other members of the climbing community, often via video interview, to see how they've been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. See more by joining Climbing's Summit Membership.

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Sasha Turrentine is a climber, freelance writer, and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her client list includes brands like The North Face, Outdoor Research, and Facebook. She's also written for Climbing Magazine, including a profile of Alex Johnson, a story about climbing in Acadia, and a feature about Escalando Fronteras, a non-profit that introduces at-risk youth in Mexico to rock climbing. Turrentine's says her business has suffered due to the pandemic, but she's also dealt with an additional challenge: she tested positive for COVID-19. Turrentine told us about her freelance work, what it's like to live in NYC during the pandemic, and what her personal experience has been with the virus.

Where are you originally from, how long have you been climbing?

Sasha Turrentine: I'm from Santa Cruz, California, and I've been climbing for about 26 years.

Can you talk a little bit more about your career? Who do you usually write and shoot for, what kind of projects do you tend to take on?

I am a freelance photographer and writer—I shoot both commercial and editorial projects for outdoor companies as well as smaller sustainable fashion companies. I gravitate towards adventure and personal development stories, and am committed to focusing on issues surrounding diversity, access and equity in the outdoor and climbing spheres. I'm less interested in the outliers and more interested in what is relatable to people.

Is freelancing your full time gig?

As of about a year ago, freelancing has been my full time gig. Before that, I supplemented my income with restaurant and bar work.

What has the impact of the pandemic been on your business?

I no longer have business. Every job I had on the calendar has been cancelled or is in jeopardy of being cancelled. I was just told that unemployment has been extended to freelance contractors so as soon as I have the energy I will begin that application process. I've been told it is not easy.

And you have COVID-19 yourself, what’s your experience been like?

It's been confusing and difficult to maneuver. I didn't fall violently ill and never experienced two of the biggest symptoms: fever and cough. So I was not hospitalized and had to decide whether or not to go to the doctor. For me, a sore throat was my most persistent symptom, which isn't listed under the signs of COVID-19. But after two weeks of difficulty swallowing, I decided to go in. I know a lot of people who were much more ill than I who were turned away when asking for a test. I went in, didn't ask for it, and [the doctor] tested me anyways. The symptoms got worse after that.

Do you know how you got it?

I think so, yes—although it's impossible to know for sure. My symptoms started in the beginning of March (sore throat/fatigue), and then a friend came over for dinner about a week later. She had recently been to Spain. Five days later she came down very sick and tested positive. My symptoms worsened quickly after. So it seems likely I got it from her. But who is to say I didn't give it to her myself?

NYC seems like a challenging place to live during this—it’s so difficult to avoid people. What’s it been like just living in that situation in general, even before you knew you had the virus?

It is not an easy time to be here. But it also isn't quite the doomsday scenario that people may imagine it to be. Today was my first day out of quarantine—my doctor gave me the OK to take walks and get groceries while wearing a mask. The streets are fairly empty, and people are keeping their distance—because of the impossibility of true quarantine for most of us and the impossibility of always being six feet away from one another—there I think is a certain amount of resignation to it as well. Before restaurants and essential businesses shut down, everyone was still operating as if we weren't about to be in a pandemic—drinking and eating, pushing their babies around in strollers. That was more odd to me than anything else.

How did you realize you had it?

I started to really wonder if I had it when I had to take numerous breaks to catch my breath when returning with two bags of groceries. It was then that I decided to go under a more strict quarantine until receiving my results. It was difficult to make that decision because I wasn't violently ill or completely debilitated. Everything was just...difficult to do.

I know of people that were refused a test despite clear symptoms, but that wasn't your experience. Can you talk more about what it was like?

Again, I had a strangely easy time getting tested. I went in hoping to get tested but not expecting to. I didn't even ask. I simply told [the doctor] that I had had a sore throat for two weeks and that it had gotten worse, then he checked my ears and found an ear infection, and tested me for strep and COVID-19 by swabbing the back of my throat. I am an outlier here—I've talked to friends in New York, Vermont, and Colorado who had fevers of 101 or higher who were turned away and told to go home and quarantine without getting tested. So I think I may have gotten lucky, maybe I got in before they got overwhelmed (this was March 17). The most frustrating part for me was the waiting. I was told it would take five days, which seemed like an eternity already, and then it ended up taking nine days to get my results. Luckily I had played it safe and stayed home, but finding out I was positive toward the end of my containment period was emotionally confusing for me.

What have your symptoms been?

All over the place. It started with a sore throat—but that might have just been a seasonal cold or flu that made me susceptible to getting the COVID-19 virus. It's hard to know. Then the fatigue set in. About two weeks after the sore throat, I started to feel out of breath when simply getting up to do the dishes or carrying a bag of groceries. The last time I went to the gym was March 11—I tried to hop on the elliptical machine and after about three minutes stepped off. I've never felt so depleted and out of breath from such a moderate form of exercise. I just walked out and went home. At the three week mark I got a head cold and lost my sense of smell and taste. I was also experiencing muscle and chest pain/aches. I never had a fever or a cough, although when I do cough, there is a rattle.

What would you like to tell other climbers? I've seen some downplaying the situation. We tend to be a group that is fit and healthy, so I’ve gotten a sense that some climbers don’t feel like they’re at risk. What would you say to those people?

Without sounding overly critical of my own community... I have, over my lifetime of being in the sport, noticed a trend of entitlement and irreverence amongst climbers. A feeling of being better than the "average" person. A feeling of being superior in some way. Whether it's that we do something risky, something different, or are simply healthier and more active than others, or that we have some sort of understanding or experience of the world that makes us in some way "above" or outside of the common human experience—I observe climbers speaking or acting in an entitled, irreverent way often. It is BS, and there is never a better time to call people out than now. There is nothing that cares less or pays less heed to a person's choice of hobby than an infectious disease. Sure, people who are immunocompromised or older are more likely to be in serious threat—but we are all in danger of contracting this virus, and more importantly, are perfect carriers of the disease. This is a societal issue, and in order for us to get through this and minimize deaths, we have to cooperate and get over ourselves.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell our audience?

My best piece of advice to offer is that many of you are either being turned away or wondering if you should go to the hospital for a test. I understand the desire for clarity in such a confusing time, I myself hung a lot on my diagnosis. But I'm here to tell you, for better or for worse, getting a positive COVID-19 test did little to solve or alleviate my anxiety. If you have symptoms, stay at home. There is very little the doctors can do for you, and even if you were to get a test, you will have subjected the medical staff and anyone in your path to the virus. Unless you have respiratory complications, the best thing you can do for yourself and others is treat yourself at home for your symptoms—and yes, that includes your fever and cough. People have asked me what the "doctor's orders" have been, and they have been just that: stay home, hydrate, monitor my symptoms, and wait it out. Please reach out to me if you have any questions. I am not a doctor and cannot offer medical counseling but I am more than happy to discuss details about my experience and symptoms with people who are concerned or stressed out, or people who are worried about other family members or friends. My email address is Sasha.turrentine@gmail.com and my instagram handle is @sashaturrentine.

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