Alone in the hospital in the midst of a global pandemic

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I have never felt so alone. I was lying in bed with severe abdominal pain. Pain I never had before. Well, at least not for a reason.

As I lay there, I kept thinking, what if I die while I wait until morning. It was the middle of the night. I had not felt well since earlier the week before with a severe diarrheal illness. One that only babies have with diapers on. I couldn’t control it. I changed the sheets on the bed. I cleaned up the floor—a trail of sh*t. Very ironic with the sh*tshow the medical world was already in. Why? Why was God making me suffer that night? Why was he making it so hard to be OK?

I was tested for COVID. I knew it wasn’t COVID. I knew it wasn’t normal. It took me a minute to figure it out. But, in retrospect, that night lying in pain, was it all related?

I knew I had to go to the hospital. I was writhing in pain. I felt scared, alone, and stuck. Stuck with a decision that I was hoping would not be my last to make on my own.

I knew my pain was severe, both subjectively but objectively. I had peritoneal signs. I couldn’t stand up straight. It hurt to walk. It hurt to go to the bathroom like I was passing through something, I am a doctor. I knew.

I was alone. Just me and my pain. But with my son in his room sleeping. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t call anyone. I couldn’t call an ambulance. I couldn’t leave my son sleeping alone in the house while I ran to the hospital for care. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t stand, let alone drive.

The hospital was on lockdown. I couldn’t take him with me. I couldn’t call his father. He might be with his girlfriend. I had asked for a ride a few weeks before, but he was occupied with his girlfriend. I couldn’t bother my family and friends. They wouldn’t understand my emergency. It was an emergency.

I lie there praying to God that he would spare me the complications of rupture of my appendix or colon, which would either lead to my demise or months of comorbidity and complication if I did survive. My condition could potentially become life-threatening. I knew that. I prayed to God that I wasn’t making my decision to wait lightly.

To realize how alone you are in the midst of a global pandemic. It was terrifying.

My friends are all married. Actually, my closest friends are my family. I can call them and ask them for anything. But, not now. There were too many variables. The hospital, my son, COVID, the emergency room. The hospitals and emergency rooms were overcrowded and on lockdown with COVID and our surge. I had no idea what my experience would be like seeking emergency medical and possible surgical care. I would go alone. I would be alone. I would potentially be exposed or contract COVID. That would now be beyond my control. I had worked so hard for months to protect myself, my family, our employees, my patients, my friends, and my peers from COVID. Everyone in my life I had protected against COVID.

Now, I had to face my inability to protect not only me but all of them. Whether that would be by my exposure or my disease or illness from it. Either way, I wouldn’t or couldn’t win. Going in just took all my control of exposure away.

Scared, sad, alone, and isolated.

Since that time, I have been able to think more about my fears that night. I have been able to understand patients’ fears better. I have also been extremely sad, feeling the loneliness and isolation that patients hospitalized in this global pandemic feel.

I was treated for diverticulitis with antibiotics, clear liquid diet, and pain control. I was released later that morning. I was relieved. My blonde haired blue sister from another mother took me to the ER. She sat in her car, waiting for me. My son’s father came to get him and take him to school. My sister called the ED and told them one of their own was sitting in the waiting room in severe pain. It was unbearable to sit up. It was torture in the waiting room. Thank God she advocated for me.

If, as a physician, I had all these fears. Scared and fearful. What about the average person with any acute symptoms requiring acute care? Those who need emergency care for any reason. What about the patient with severe COVID symptoms? How much fear they must endure. The fear of going in and never coming out. The fear of getting the virus. The fear of dying alone. The fear of the ventilator. The fear of not being able to breathe. But, the worst of all, it has got to be that fear of not seeing their loved ones again. There is, in fact, that potential. Their last words may be, “I am being put on the ventilator. I love you so much. I will see you again. Goodbye.” Last words for so many. They were the last words for my patient to his beloved wife. He was one of the first deaths in my area.

Now, most people recover. I am not talking about COVID statistics. I am talking about severely ill patients and acute patients seeking care. ER and hospital care.

Not only in seeking treatment but the fear of being alone. Suffering alone. Potentially contracting the virus in the hospital. Beyond anyone’s control because they have to be in the hospital for another reason.

In retrospect, the reason no one sought treatment for the first three months of COVID in my area. I believe in most of the U.S. These fears were real. It took months for primary care and several subspecialties to pick up the pieces of these fears.

Then I thought about the patients in the hospital with COVID. Alone, without family for support. Suffering alone. Not being able to breathe. So scared that they may not survive the virus. No one to talk to. No one to tell their fears to. Only the doctors and nurses. But, they are so overworked and so overtired now. They have taken all this burden of death, dying, and suffering. As if they were family.

We are in crisis.

Kelly Lisciandro is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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