Commentary

A surgeon and Navy reservist shares what it’s like to have COVID-19

Conventional wisdom says I got it at a funeral in Atlanta. Scientific/deductive reasoning suggests I went to Atlanta with it. Nevertheless, I am COVID-19 positive, just released to home after a nearly weeklong stay in one of the hospitals where I am an acute care trauma surgeon in Los Angeles County. Very first time as an in-patient. Hopefully last time. Now the true work begins.

Truly strange times, strange symptoms. One minute, I feel fine and ready to get back to work as if this is just some bad dream. The next, I am fighting for breaths as if they will be my last. I slept OK last night but woke up this morning winded and deconditioned. After what seems like forever, but could not have been more than 30 minutes, I got out of bed, fought off some shortness of breath (SOB) and dyspnea and made it downstairs. Interestingly enough, walking around slowly, taking sloooooow deep breaths, remaining calm and focusing on not dying, all help.

This is not my first up-close experience with this novel coronavirus. As a Navy reservist, I was mobilized to New York City earlier this year as part of the federal response. It was amazing caring for patients, talking to me coherently, albeit with a little SOB, but with oxygen saturations in the high 80s on room air. To any front-line health care worker, that is a concerning number. But I understand now. I am happy to be in the low 90s when I start my day and smile inwardly as I see my numbers approach 94, 95 as the morning progresses.

My wife, my wonderful wife, who is holding the family together, God bless her, had just finished making the boys breakfast my first morning back. She made me some oatmeal. My appetite had not been the best, but the oatmeal went down like a five-star meal. Had a productive morning, balanced the checkbooks, called Best Buy for Jacob’s (the 6 year old) laptop that shorted after he spilled a bottle of Gatorade on it while I was in the hospital, my wife made Liem (the 3 year old), a telehealth checkup visit since he had been spiking fevers the past three days, caught Jacob up on his math homework, responded to numerous emails/texts. Business as usual right? Be back to work next week, right?

Nope, SOB, exhausted, had to shut it down. Barely made it back to bed upstairs. Have no recollection of the next hour other than I am awake now and back to my new baseline. If this is to be the cycle for the next week, two weeks, month, however long to get back to normal, so be it. Too much living left to be done.

It is different to be a patient. To be on the other side where you have to rely so much on the kindness of others. I now know what it’s like to struggle to breathe. It has been said before, COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly. I am thankful for all those who have taken the time to reach out to me and my family during this difficult time. Family, friends, fraternity brothers. I am truly thankful for every second that I can take a deep breath. I just want to be able to breathe. The alternative is not an option.

Whoever is taking the time to read this, thank you. Whoever is taking the time to wear a mask, thank you. Whoever is taking the time to stay at home and socially distance, thank you. Whoever is taking the time to wash your hands for 20 seconds and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, thank you.

I thank all the doctors and nurses, CNAs, phlebotomists, transporters, EVS technicians and everyone who came upon my path during my recent stay at St. Mary Medical Center Long Beach.

Our health care team cannot do this alone; our public health colleagues cannot do this alone; you cannot do this alone; I cannot do this alone. Only collectively can we get through this. Only by listening and adhering to the latest guidelines from our public health officials and wearing masks can we get through this. Only by staying at home and socially distancing can we get through this. We have to. The alternative is not an option.

Dr. Jonathan A. Pryor, MD, FACS, is a board certified general/trauma surgeon at two Level 2 trauma centers in Los Angeles County. He is also a captain in the United States Navy Reserve.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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