Being a COVID-19 Survivor Keeps This Doctor Strong & Sympathetic on the Front Lines

Photo credit: BENEDICT EVANS
Photo credit: BENEDICT EVANS

From Harper's BAZAAR

Photo credit: Benedict Evans
Photo credit: Benedict Evans

I was running our department's weekly didactic conference, these lectures we have every Wednesday. Everything is on Zoom now, so we were not even meeting in person. But I was sitting there and I was like, “Man, I do not feel good.” And then I had this wave of chills that went up through my scalp. I was like, “Hmm, this isn’t right. I’ll go take a nap.”

I took my temperature and I didn’t have a fever. And it’s funny, because I woke up from the nap and it’s like denial is a real thing. I was like, “I’m fine. I’m feeling better. This isn’t going to be it.” But I’d already counted that it was about five days from my last shift and that’s a common incubation time is for COVID-19. Two hours later, I spiked a fever. And then it all went downhill from there.

I had this plan in my brain for what was going to happen to my wife and my 12-month-old daughter if I got sick. But suddenly I was feeling so crummy that I was completely unable to put any plan into action. All I did was basically wall myself off in a bedroom in our apartment that had its own en suite bathroom.

I isolated myself inside of our apartment. Fortunately, we have another bedroom, so my wife and my daughter moved in there. I was strict about trying to prevent them from becoming sick and limiting any further exposure. But somewhere between the fevers, I realized I had to send them away—that they weren’t going to be safe.

I had about 12 days at home quite sick. I’ve made it through and now I’m back to work. I’ve been pretty eager to get back in there. But a lot changed in those 12 days. I went back, and I walked around and every single person in every room was on a vent or on a non-rebreather, and it was so eerie. It was like I was in some alternate universe. On a normal 12-hour shift, we might have one or two of those patients come through the emergency department. And for it to be every single patient, sometimes even two a room, it was like: What happened? In 12 days, the world had turned upside down.

Photo credit: Benedict Evans
Photo credit: Benedict Evans

Being somebody that’s recovered from this illness myself, I’ve really enjoyed having the chance to talk to the patients about their symptoms and what they’re going through, because I feel like I can really identify with what they’re experiencing. It was a very scary experience for me as well. You cannot breathe. You are very light-headed. You feel like you’re gonna pass out. You have fevers that don’t go away for days. I understand what they’re going through. I understand why they’re scared. And I’m trying to reassure them, because if their oxygen saturation is fine, then they’re okay and they don’t need to be admitted. But that doesn’t minimize the symptoms and the fear that they’re experiencing.

When I go to work these days, I feel like I’m going into battle. I try to make sure I’m hydrated, rested, fed, and ready to go. I was an athlete in the past, so I take my shifts very much as a physical experience. But that has changed now. When you’re wearing so much personal protective equipment, the major risk is in the doffing—where you’re actually taking off the gear—which has put a whole other level of risk on drinking from a water bottle or taking a snack break. It has changed the entire flow of things. You might be gowned up, wearing two masks, a shield, a head cover… You’re wearing a lot, and you’re probably wearing it for six or seven hours before you try to take a break for five minutes. By that point, your face hurts. Your forehead hurts. Your ears hurt from everything.

I’m a big runner. I lift regularly. I am into physically taking care of myself. And that is more difficult right now. Between gyms being closed and being outdoors feeling riskier than it has in the past, I’ve shifted my routine to doing more yoga. I try to do that every day. A lot of us are starting to explore and embrace either mindfulness directly or meditation. Just because we have to take care of ourselves psychologically. A lot of us have difficulty sleeping, have nightmares. We all cry all the time now. It just happens, like spur of the moment. You never know when it’s coming. In our group, there are these little little networks that have formed of people who are chatting and staying in touch via WhatsApp. I think we all break at different points. Everybody kind of loses their marbles at different times, and it’s nice to be able to be there for each other. Because we’re all struggling.

It’s honestly horrific, what we’re seeing in the hospitals. I know that we say that and it’s on the news, but it’s like, what have we done to ourselves as a society that we’ve gotten to that point? When I’m in the emergency department and I’m seeing these people who are suffering, how can I bridge that gap between being a provider and their suffering? I mean, I’m gowned and gloved with my hair covered and wearing a mask. All they can really see is like two inches of my eyes. And yet I see their whole faces and they’re terrified. So many of us feel the burden to be there for these patients because they don’t have their family at bedside. But how can you do that when you look like a robot covered in gear?

Photo credit: Benedict Evans
Photo credit: Benedict Evans

I spent a year working with NGOs in Africa and Southeast Asia, and I think there are a lot of us who have had prior aid experience. Some folks have even worked with the military. But it doesn’t seem like any of that is making any of this any easier. I don’t know what it is… Maybe it’s because when you’re working in those sort of situations abroad, you expect heavier losses and this is just hitting so close to home because your guard is down, you’re not expecting to see that same degree of suffering here, down the street, where you live.

When I talk to my family and friends in other cities, most of what I’m saying to them is trying to warn them about what this virus actually is and the respect it deserves. I’m from Texas. Most of my family and friends aren’t in New York City, so they’re in pockets of the country where the spread has been less apparent. And there has been a lot of doubt. So most of the time, I’m trying to emphasize the severity of what we’re dealing with here.

My family is a big inspiration for me. It’s been hard because I sent them away when I got sick. I think about them a lot because I miss them so much, but also because I don’t know when they’re coming back.

About three days after I isolated myself, my daughter started walking. We had been waiting for, like, three months for her to start walking, and then on that day she stood up and walked out of the room. My wife called me and it just broke my heart. To not be there to see that... Everyone tells you there are so many milestones in life and you’ll get to see so many others. But I had been so looking forward for that moment.

I think about how many times I’ve told my wife, “You know, we’re going to take that vacation. We’re going to make sure that we take time for ourselves.” Because we often push things back. I also have all these older relatives. Half of us at the hospital are like, “When are we ever going to even be able to see our parents again? When is our risk going to be low enough that a simple trip home isn’t a big deal?” I think about all of the stuff we took for granted before.

I think humans sometimes can’t deal with threats they can’t see. But the really touching part of this whole thing has been the outpouring of support that a lot of us have felt as healthcare workers. It’s funny because most of us in the emergency department have heard from almost like any contact we’ve had in our entire lives. It has been 20 or 30 years since I feel I’ve spoken to some of these people, and they’re checking in and asking what they can do.

I’ve always struggled a little bit with New York City. I’m from the South originally. So I feel like I have different standards for general kindness and friendliness on the street than what New York City normally is. But I got so many notes under my door from neighbors! I got people asking what prescriptions they could go pick up for me. I had people getting groceries. I had colleagues come by and demand to take my laundry, because I couldn’t do my laundry for two weeks. And it was just—it was amazing. It was the type of thing where New York comes up and totally surprises you. Because when real challenges come, then people really come together.

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