The Coronavirus Sidelined Me From My Work as a Doctor. Soon I’ll Be Back on the Frontlines

On March 11 I started my day at 6 a.m. with my usual busy calendar: rounding on patients in the hospital, attending meetings, hopping on a quick conference call, then heading off to the operating room. I was energized by my morning coffee and felt great. By mid-afternoon, everything was different. I had terrible body aches, fever, sudden fatigue. It was an effort just to walk to my car, parked three blocks away. A few more hours and I was short of breath. I saw my local physician in urgent care, and within minutes she was able to rule out two of the three likely culprits: influenza and strep.

Five days earlier, the President announced that anyone who wanted a COVID-19 test could get one. The reality was different. “We don’t have access to the test,” I was told. My doctor could not offer any alternative testing options. After another day of searching, I was able to be tested. The swab had to be sent out of state – there were no local labs that were able to run the test with a quick turnaround time.

While I waited, I self-quarantined at home. The fever broke after a few days and I felt better only to be knocked down with round two: a sore throat, a hacking deep chest cough, and trouble taking a deep breath. Still no test result. Due to the backlog in our nation’s testing system, it took nine more days to confirm what had become evident: I was infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

I was one of the first few dozen New Yorkers to become a statistic in this global pandemic. But statistics take on a different meaning when they include someone you know. As I told people close to me about the test result, the concern in their voices was palpable, even if the conversation was upbeat. Those I was in close contact with before falling ill not only worried about me but about themselves: Would they be the next victims? All of a sudden this was not just a news story. It was personal. And it was that much scarier.

It was scarier for me too. Although I’d followed the news of the infection since we started hearing about cases in Wuhan, China, monitoring the spread and learning the symptoms, there was still so much I didn’t know, couldn’t know, until I contracted it myself. I tried to remember the advice I have given to my own patients — “Right now you’re O.K. Get help if you have more trouble breathing. For now, stay at home and monitor symptoms. Watch and wait” – but at times my mind jumped to worst-case scenarios. I worried when breathing became more difficult. I knew my lungs were working as hard as possible to extract enough oxygen without additional help. Would I need to be hospitalized and take up critical resources that are soon to be in short supply? Would I become deathly ill? Could I die? There was a chance I could die. My co-workers may have to take care of me, maybe even have to place me on a ventilator and take control of basic functions with life support.

While it’s true that elderly people and people with underlying health conditions are more likely to die of the disease, COVID-19 doesn’t care about your age or whether you are easy to kill. It looks to infect anyone and everyone, and because no one’s immune system has seen this virus before, we’re all easy prey. Considering the exponential growth of new cases, some people in the prime of their life will become critically ill. Some will not survive.

Even though I’m in my 40s and in good overall health, this illness hit me harder than I expected. I did not need to be hospitalized, but I came close. According to a recent report issued by the CDC, out of 508 hospitalizations in the U.S. as of March 16, 38% were people between the ages of 20 and 54. I knew the second week of the illness was when I could take a turn for the worse, if I was going to take a turn for the worse. It could happen any day.

As awful as this month has been, there’s no question that I’m one of the lucky ones. About two weeks after my first symptoms, my breathing is back to normal, the aching cough is mostly a memory and I’m left with a little tickle in the back of my throat. I haven’t taken a mid-day nap in years, but I’ll need one for a few more days. I’m still too tired to go for a run with my dog.

I’ll return to the frontlines in just a few days, but it won’t be business as usual. Taking care of patients sickened by the pandemic has disrupted the usual routine of every hospital in the area. Elective surgeries are no longer possible. Each of the hospital units continues to steadily fill with patients, both young and old, all with the same diagnosis: severe acute COVID-19 infection. Additional temporary hospitals are rapidly being created around the region to handle the overflow of sick patients. The Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan will be hosting a convention for which it was never intended: hundreds of sick patients that the city’s hospitals are soon to be too full to accommodate. I’ll be shifting from my usual practice of transplanting organs to taking care of critically ill COVID-19 patients.

I’m impatient to get back to work, but I’m also worried – both for my patients and for my colleagues. I know it’s inevitable that doctors, nurses and hospital staff – my friends and work family – will become infected and be unable to work. Some of them will become patients. Within the coming weeks, we will all know someone who’s been infected – or be that someone.

My colleagues and I will keep fighting the good fight. But everyone has a role to play: Right now, the most powerful ammunition we have is distancing from each other to make it harder for the virus to find a new host. We can slow the spread and allow the health care infrastructure to manage the casualties and to heal the sick.

We will defeat this disease, but until we do, please do me a favor: Wash your hands and stay at home until it’s safe to come out and play.

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Contributor: Bruce Gelb