Dr. Laura Sang graduated from McGill’s MDCM program in 2019 and is currently doing her family medicine residency at St-Mary’s Hospital. While working at the hospital on the frontlines of the pandemic, Dr. Sang contracted COVID-19. The following is her first-person account of going from physician to patient.
“Oh no, this can’t be happening” was my first thought when I awoke Friday morning of Easter weekend. My muscles ached and felt heavy, my throat burned, and I was covered in a gentle sweat – the morning dew of illness.
I took my temperature – 37.8. I heaved myself out of bed and got dressed. I forced down a few bites of oatmeal, but I had no appetite. I lay for another hour or two hoping it would pass but it didn’t, and I knew I would need to walk over to the hospital having no access to my car and not being allowed to use public transit. It’s only 20 minutes, I can do it.
Before leaving the house I paused – should I bring anything with me? Nah, this is a simple in/out scenario. Balaclava and winter coat on, I slowly made the walk with only my wallet, keys, phone, and hospital ID. I am definitely sick, I thought to myself, as I felt more out of breath and dizzy than usual walking up a steep hill. I thought about taking breaks a few times in my walk but instead just slowed down.
In the holding area, I sat with my eyes closed waiting for my turn to be swabbed. All I wanted was to sleep. As they took my vitals, my mind raced with all the things I’d need to take care of – messaging the faculty, finding someone to cover my call, etc.
“Woah, are you feeling okay?” I snapped back to reality. I could see the fear in my nurse’s eyes – it’s amazing how much you learn to read people’s eyes when you spend so much time working in masks. I looked at the monitor to see I had a fever of 39.5 and my heart rate was running at 140. Apart from a bit of dizziness and palpitations I felt alright. They kept me in another holding area where the ER physician peeked in and informed me that they would be doing some blood tests and a chest X-ray. I asked for water and Tylenol which the nurses kindly gave me.
I dozed in my chair waiting for the results. After about an hour, the ER physician returned.
“Are my lymphocytes low?”
“Yes” (Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell involved in fighting viral infections. Low lymphocyte count seems to be a hallmark finding in COVID-19.)
“Anything on my chest X-ray? I definitely feel a little pain on the left side.”
“Yes, we do see a little something. I’ve seen a lot of patients with COVID-19 lately and I’m a bit worried. I would like to keep you in the ER for observation, start you on antibiotics and IV fluids. Please follow me.”
It was in that moment I knew in my heart it happened. I had COVID-19. I didn’t need the results from the swabs – I had it. No longer able to maintain composure, I broke down crying. My tears pooled inside of my mask. I was brought to a negative pressure room (created with what looked like cellophane and a small generator on the floor). IV fluids were started, and I was hooked up to telemetry (which is like a continuous EKG).
In the blink of an eye I went from working in this hospital to being a patient. Various healthcare workers did a double take by my room, recognizing me and sending me good wishes through my plastic wrap window.
Fear and fever
To any physician who has been a patient, you know how challenging it is to accept that sick role. The doctor’s hat doesn’t come off just because the hospital gown comes on. Colleagues had now become my caregivers. The usual mental challenge of diagnosing patients and developing comprehensive management plans was replaced with trying to figure out how to use the commode whilst connected to a spider web of medical tubing.
I tried to curb my thoughts, but I couldn’t help but wonder what if I was one of the young people who would die from this? These fearful thoughts floated in and out of my head, the only sounds to drown them out being the gentle hum of the negative pressure generator and the rhythmic dripping of my IV fluids.
As the fever came down over the course of the next 6–7 hours, my appetite came back. I called the nurses stating that I was ravenously hungry despite the small cheese sandwiches I was given earlier. Much to my surprise they came back with several slices of pizza. “We’ve seen you work here. This could have been any one of us. We need to take care of each other.” They also lent me a phone charger so I could continue to give my family updates. Later that evening I was transferred to a COVID floor for continued monitoring.
Gatorade and Kinder Surprises
As the days passed my heart rate slowly came down. I spent most of my time lost in thought and chatting with friends/family. My best friend dropped off some much-needed supplies, which helped make my time in hospital more bearable. I never realized the degree to which patients are stripped of their control while in hospital. Being woken up every few hours to have your vitals checked, receiving meals whenever they come, etc.
You could sometimes wait two hours to be seen after calling the nurse for something non-urgent because they are dealing with more urgent situations with other patients. Despite receiving stellar care, there were still moments I felt dehumanized.
Three days later I was finally stable enough to go home. I was brought home via a special taxi. The first night back in my bed was glorious. The next seven days were spent mostly asleep, fuelled by Gatorade and Kinder Surprise chocolate. Every morning this virus felt like a new illness; some days the predominant symptom would be joint pain, other days it would mainly be coughing. Around days 6–7 of illness I completely lost my sense of smell – quickly realized when I felt the need to add salt to my Campbell’s soup.
By day ten, I started to feel like me again. My sense of humour, my appetite, and my drive to get back on the front lines to practise medicine all flooded back in. After two repeat negative tests, I was allowed to go back to work. I did it. I survived COVID-19.
Care and kindness
Pandemics can bring out two kinds of people: the person who hoards or the person who helps. I have to say after the initial frenzy of toilet paper buying, I’m seeing more and more of the latter. Neighbours and friends dropping off food in my mailbox to make sure I had something to eat while sick. Donations from various companies to healthcare workers and those in need. Patients more than ever asking me if I’m doing okay during their phone consultations.
Although our experience of the pandemic is vastly affected by our level of privilege, we are going through a collective trauma. And even though many of our rights are taken away, we still have tremendous power to help others. So please, I implore you – reach out to those who are vulnerable and see if they need help. Groceries, a phone conversation to combat the isolation, you name it. I can tell you firsthand that these gestures go a long way in making these difficult times more manageable. Social distancing will keep us safe, but kindness will keep us human.