I am an emergency and critical care physician. I had COVID-19 infection twice and I’m tired.

I am a critical care and emergency medicine physician, I have had COVID-19 infection twice, and I’m tired.

My first infection was early on in the pandemic.  I had to place a Blakemore tube in a young man who was going to die from his massive bleeding from cirrhosis.  I didn’t know then that the patient was positive for COVID, as he didn’t have any “typical” symptoms. I placed the tube and got him transferred to another facility, and am proud to say this patient lived.  However, 5 days later, I came down with COVID.  It was awful.  My joints hurt more than I had ever experienced before.  It was like someone was trying to break them from the inside out.  I had trouble breathing and could actually feel my throat and airways swollen.  The fatigue and terrible headaches had me down for days.  I have migraines normally, but this was something much different. My food didn’t smell or taste like it normally did.  My daily decisions were weighing how important it was to get up to go to the bathroom as this took so much energy to do so.  Simple tasks would often lead me to take a nap.  Fortunately, I recovered, and because I was quarantined away from my family, my infant daughter and husband were spared.

I take all the precautions.  I thought I was doing everything right.  I wear a mask both in and out of work.  Once I get home, I take off my “dirty scrubs” and head straight for the shower, even if my daughter is screaming to be picked up.  My work shoes do not enter the house.  I wear full PPE for any procedure I perform in the hospital. I have picked up extra shifts to help out, which is exhausting but necessary.  I warned others about being cautious.  For many months, this complex system seemed to be working. Then 7 months later, I was diagnosed with COVID-19 again.

This time, my husband likely brought it home to me.  He lost his sense of taste and smell, and out of an abundance of caution, we both got tested, and we were both positive.  Thank goodness my daughter had spent the previous few nights with her Nana.  My mother and 14-month-old daughter were again spared infection and even got tested as a precaution.  I once again had fatigue and headaches.  This time I also had a “brain fog.”  My brain that is usually able to work in a rapid-fire manner, was slow and sluggish.  I knew I wasn’t processing things correctly, and I had trouble remembering words and names.  It was an awful feeling.  I once again was in quarantine; this time, instead of being alone, I was in the company of my husband.  I am grateful that we both recovered.  I have taken care of far too many, which were not as fortunate.

Some might say that being out of work and quarantining “isn’t too bad,” but I disagree.  I lost over a month of my young daughter’s life; it is time I will never be able to get back.  I indeed made the choice to stay away for her safety, but in reality, I didn’t have a choice, and the loss of time doesn’t hurt any less.  Quarantining twice also meant that my physician colleagues had to pitch in and cover for me.  This was a time that I was not available to help the medical team and care for so many other people’s mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children in a time when we are all stretched too thin.  This virus took me away from my job, from my ability to help and care for others.  It put added strain on an already strained medical system.  The virus didn’t care that I’m a doctor.

I am a critical care and emergency medicine physician and I’m tired.  I’m tired of COVID-19, but not for the same reasons as I hear other people say.  It’s not the wearing masks, social distancing, lack of travel, and the fact that I routinely wear full PPE to work.  No, it’s so much more.  I am tired of hearing the denial and the statements that COVID is “made up.”  I am emotionally exhausted from all the deaths, deaths of people who go from talking to me in one minute, and suffering a cardiopulmonary arrest or respiratory failure in the next.   I’m tired of the deaths of those whose loved ones cannot be by their sides, and I know I’m not alone in the medical community with this thought.  It’s heartbreaking to know that my masked face or that of a nurse is the last face a patient sees before they die.  I wish families could be present and care for their loved ones, but the risk is too high.  There are many times I have stayed in full PPE in a room while a patient died so that they wouldn’t die alone.  I have held their hand.  I have apologized that their family couldn’t be there.  I have apologized that we couldn’t save them.  I have cried behind that PPE too many times.  Each death still affects me even months later.  I am tired of these heartbreaking losses.

I am tired of being called uncaring or worse names. I understand it’s beyond imaginable that you cannot be at your dying loved one’s side for the entire time; I hate it too.  These protocols and policies are in place to protect people from the virus, but I know it’s causing harm to my patients’ emotional well-being and their loved ones.  I get it. I want to scream and yell and carry on with you about how unfair this all is.  It is unfair.

I am tired of the lack of community in the world.  Like it or not, we are all in this together.  We need to take care of each other, protect each other.  I get that there are a lot of people who recover from COVID-19; I am one of them, twice.  However, I work daily with patients that require ICU care.   They often stay for weeks to months.  Patients suffer from more than just a cough or trouble breathing, or the fatigue and brain fog.  I have seen strokes, heart attacks, renal failure ending up on dialysis, profound weakness from the constant cycle of paralyzing drugs, and placing patients on their stomachs to improve their oxygenation. I have treated patients that went from normal everyday walking and talking to needing full care with a breathing tube and feeding tube for months after they “recovered.”

I am tired, but each day I go to work, I continue to pour my heart, soul, and mind into my patients.   Being a critical care and emergency medicine physician is a job I love.  I want to help people, and I will continue to do so until my services are no longer needed or until I cannot. I promise you this; I will continue to fight for you.  This tired physician asks, please fight for us too. Wear your masks. Take care of your neighbors. We are all in this together, and only together will we survive.

Kara Ward is an emergency and critical care physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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