I have been a respiratory therapist for over 40 years. I have lived through Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and a dozen more pandemics, but, COVID-19 has, in my opinion, been the most terrifying virus in my career.
Last March, I took a trip to see my father in Florida, just to spend some time with him without the chaos of phones, car pools, job and day-to-day responsibilities. I welcomed the trip, needed to feel the sun against my face, and looked forward to “Dad and Me” time. As I said goodbye to him at the airport on March 18, I had no idea what the next year would hold for me and my family.
Within days of my arrival back in New Jersey, the exposure, infection, hospitalizations and deaths soared. With each passing day, the numbers reported by news agencies and government agencies saw huge spikes, especially in morbidity rates. Soon, there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to go around and healthcare workers were forced to reuse what limited supply we had.
Here I am, a year later. A year into this war and I am exhausted. A year of fighting 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 21 to 28 days in a row. A year in this war losing whole families, losing coworkers, and friends. A year of hearing it’s not real, it’s a hoax. A year of listening to non-healthcare people saying it’s not bad, it’s just like the flu.
A year of putting on my battle dress uniform of scrubs. A year of grabbing my weapons, my stethoscope, pulse oximeter, double gloves, double gowns and a prayer. A year of watching my respiratory therapy and nurse colleagues do the same.
A year of alarms, code blue alarms, low oxygen level alarms. A year of lying to my patients as I tell them it will be OK, knowing it most likely will not. A year of hearing people say that they are tired of wearing masks, tired of not going to clubs, tired of virtual school.
But I quietly go about my calling to keep my patients alive. Even when everyone else has started going on about their lives like this war is over, my colleagues and I are still in the trenches fighting. But, we are utterly exhausted. Some healthcare workers have quit, some have gotten sick from the virus and have been left with damage to vital organs and cannot work any longer.
I thought to myself at one point, WHEN I get COVID (not IF), how sick am I going to be? That day became my reality on December 1. After being on the battlefield as a warrior, I found myself a victim. My infection started with body aches and a massive headache one morning. The next day, it was a temperature, and loss of taste and smell. The following day, it was a wracking cough. Each day I woke up to another symptom, more frightening than the previous day. My oxygen levels fell dangerously low. I made a phone call to a friend who is a director of respiratory care at a local hospital and told her to get my team together, I might be coming in if my levels dropped any lower. I took what I have coined my “COVID Cocktail” of vitamins, minerals, aspirin, and other medicines. Each designed to combat a certain aspect of the virus. I walked outside on my deck for 15 minutes every two hours with my hands above my head, taking deep breaths to keep my lungs expanded. I did this as I cried from the pain as my family looked on through a window, helpless. I never lied down, unless it was to sleep at night. I sat up straight in a chair during the day and took deep breaths with every commercial on TV. I was not about to let the COVID virus into my lungs, because I knew what the end results would be.
Two weeks later, I felt almost human again, and three weeks from my positive test, I was back to work. I don’t quit. And just when I think I cannot do another minute fighting this monster of a virus, I look deep within myself and remember that I am a warrior. I stand tall and keep going. I stand shoulder to shoulder with the other warriors and we continue to fight.
I will take a vaccine when I am eligible to in order to protect my friends, family and patients. It is the only weapon we have in our arsenal to stop this monster and with any luck, return to “normalcy”.
We are winning small battles with ventilation strategies and therapeutics. We know more today than we did last spring and summer. We know what works, and what does not work. We are seeing the morbidity of COVID-infected patients drop through hard work and science. Just when we think we know it all, the virus morphs into different strains like most viruses do. Everything becomes unknown again. We will be looking at data for years to come.
Please continue to wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing when possible, and take the vaccine when you can.
This war is not over.