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When the Doctor Becomes the Patient

gatoradeHe said it was going to be bad -- really bad.

My husband adores Rachel Maddow – Lawrence O’Donnell and Brian Williams too, but Rachel is his primary gal. He also loves science, molecular biology and medicine and has made his career as a research physician and as the director of a large department at one of the city’s major hospitals.

So when Maddow began to shift her focus from politics to early coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in January, it was the perfect storm. A mysterious virus, uncertain news from China, an epidemiologic conundrum, Trump’s denials and the potential for a pandemic…. What could be more fascinating?

My husband became even more intently focused on MSNBC’s nightly coverage. To me it seemed like fifteen minutes of the news told me all I needed to know but he watched intently as the news was spun and re-spun for the entire evening line-up.

As the story unfolded from Kirkland, Washington to the Diamond Princess Cruise ship my husband kept saying, “it’s going to be bad…really bad. We’re all going to know people who die.” I thought he had watched too many disaster movies and dismissed his concerns as the product of an overactive imagination. After all, Ebola had broken out in remote areas of Africa and somehow been contained. We heard a lot about bird flu, but I never knew anyone to contract it. Though I see horror nightly on television, how often does it come to my door?

My husband is a “glass half empty” kind of guy, who’s been known to want to sell our entire stock portfolio at the first sign of bad news. I’m the glass half full type, and usually look at the world through rose colored glasses. But when he suggested I go out and buy two weeks of food I thought, why not? That was in the days before we were told to wear gloves or masks to the store, and you could still buy paper towels and toilet paper. I stocked the freezer and padded the pantry with soups, tuna, and pasta and remained unconvinced that the peril could become personal.

In early March I happened to have two sets of theater tickets and spent considerable time deliberating about whether or not I should go. What if the person sitting next to me should cough? Was this virus really rampant or just a phantom threat? In the end, I decided to attend what turned out to be some of Broadway’s final performances.

My husband continued to go to his office and laboratory at the hospital during the first few weeks of March, until the crisis worsened, and the entire hospital became a corona ward. At that point he worked day and night from home, and I had trouble getting him to leave his office to come down for meals. I worried that he was so enmeshed in the crisis that he would contract the virus at home. I knew that virtual transmission was impossible, but I feared it just the same.

The weeks wore on and all of our fears became reality. In the beginning my daughter and I took long walks and continued to acknowledge friends and neighbors from a healthy distance. Next we started to wear gloves and masks outside and keep to ourselves, crossing the street to avoid any contact. The masks initially felt a bit like Halloween, but eventually we lost our sense of humor. The suffocating masks and uncomfortable plastic gloves began to feel like what they really were – armor against germ warfare.

March wasted away into April in a blur of indistinguishable days. My husband seemed to be tied up on a call 24/7 or furiously typing away. I stayed busy updating Scarsdale10583 while doing more vacuuming, laundry, cooking, dusting and mopping than I had ever done in my life. Though I rarely left the house, each night I fell into bed feeling like I had run a marathon.

That all changed a few days before Passover. My husband came down for dinner and announced his temperature was 100. Since we had all been holed up in the house for three weeks, it seemed impossible that he could have contracted COVID-19. I remember thinking to myself…. it’s the immaculate infection.

Though I was somewhat skeptical, he wanted to be tested. I had published a story on the site about drive-through testing at a local provider, and since my husband was a physician they agreed to test him. He drove himself there and was back in minutes. However, five days later when he continued to experience fever, fatigue and a cough, the results had still not come back.

So he decided to take a drive down to his hospital where they were offering staff a rapid test. We hopped in the car and drove to the city in no time. There were few cars on the road and almost no one on the streets. Again he was in and out of the testing in minutes. We made a quick stop to pick up some “just in case” meds and sped back to Scarsdale. At that point, he seemed uncomfortable but not too sick to drive and I thought both tests would prove to be negative.

But later that night the phone rang and I eavesdropped on the downstairs phone to hear a colleague tell my husband the test was positive … and to hear my husband say, “I knew it.” He knew it, but I did not, and I sure was surprised.

From there the story gets much worse and far more frightening. In the next few days he was thoroughly overtaken by a rattling cough that shook the walls of our house. His fever ebbed and flowed – but never got higher that 101 – but he was achy, short of breath, exhausted and miserable. He turned off his computer and stopped using his phone. He no longer came downstairs to eat and we shuttled food up and down the stairs to his bedside. We woke him up three or four times during the night just take make sure he was breathing, and the nights were endless for him and for us.

He refused to speak to us, to watch television or confer with his physician friends who called often. Perhaps he was corresponding with someone, but to us it seemed like he was directing his own medical care. Since he’s the guy that everyone calls when they get sick, we never imagined that a time would come when he would need us to take care of him. We pestered him hourly to take his temperature, measure his oxygen level and to drink – something ---- anything. We kept asking him what to do and for the first time in our lives he looked scared and clueless.

After he received confirmation that he was positive we were cautious about interacting with him – wearing masks and standing outside the door of his room. However, as a physician he assured us that we had been exposed before he had the diagnosis, and that wearing masks was useless. We continued to be hesitant about going near him, but did not follow the strictest quarantine rules, trying instead to minimize our exposure.

And then a few days later the situation got even more dire. He was racked with nausea and refused to drink or eat anything. He started to look like he was out of it and irrational. No matter how many times we begged him to drink – he simply said, “I can’t.” We called friends who brought smart water, several shades of Gatorade, Ensure, Coke, Ginger Ale and juice. We poured glass after glass, only to go to his side and find the drinks untouched.

This went on for several days until I feared he would get too dehydrated and we would have to call the ambulance. At one point, an ambulance did arrive with an oxygen tank – and that got the only response we had from him in days. Seeing the emergency vehicle out the window, he pushed the house intercom and yelled, “Who called an ambulance?”

During one of the long nights I woke up at 3 am and realized that my life might be forever changed. I confronted the fact that we might lose him –something I had refused to acknowledge through these many long days. I had no idea what my life would be without him. We had never even considered this or discussed it. It seemed unfathomable. Terrorized at the thought, I climbed into bed with my daughter.

We hit day 10, day 11 and finally day 12. We heard this could last two weeks, but we didn’t feel that he was going to make it for two weeks in traythis condition.

Finally, on day 12 he woke up and said, “I think I might feel better.” And lo and behold he agreed to have something to eat. I brought up a tray with a boiled egg and a piece of toast – and when my daughter stopped in a little while later, the egg and most of the toast were gone. When she brought the empty tray downstairs we cried.

Its day 13 since the fever struck and he’s far from cured -- still napping all day and zapped of energy. But he is eating and he is drinking and I know that one day soon he’ll decide to rejoin us downstairs.

Everyone is telling us how fortunate we are that we’ll have antibodies to this beastly virus down the road. For now I just feel fortunate that we’re all alive. As he predicted, it was going to be bad … really bad. And it was.

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