As has been echoed in other posts on in-Training and beyond, the novel coronavirus pandemic has created fear and panic across the globe. It has propelled racism and xenophobia directed towards Asians and Asian-Americans. The coverage has majorly been in one of two lenses. The first lens is that of individuals and families going about their daily business and experiencing changes in their schedules, work and school. The second lens is that of exhausted medical staff working at overflowing health care facilities and taking every precaution to provide quality care at the front lines.
Occasionally, the media supplies anecdotes and videos from patients in quarantine or recovering from COVID-19. But there has been limited to no coverage regarding what it’s like to get sick during this time and to enter the health care system without knowing if your condition is related to the pandemic. I envisioned it to be a frightening situation with much grey area, and then I endured it myself.
I was in my last few weeks as a college student, ready to graduate at the end of winter quarter. The concerns about COVID-19 affecting in-person college curricula seemed distant to me as I likely would be done before they were instituted. I read up on all of the updates, hyper-aware of my hand-washing duration and frequency and limiting my attendance at larger social gatherings and club events. I stopped taking trains and buses 18 days before the incident and stopped riding in cars five days before. The week before finals week approached, and I focused to complete all of the essays and projects. I hosted a few friends on my last night of college to quickly bid adieu and to wrap college in a neat little bow. Later that night, the episode began.
I violently vomited four times, each episode interrupted by bouts of attempted sleep and shivering. I was running a fever. A few hours into this gastrointestinal attack, I was convinced that I was very ill. Moving all of my stuff out the next morning alone and flying out at night sounded like an insurmountable challenge. I needed to call a friend, or call for help. I took my phone out, but froze all of a sudden. The entire university was being asked to pack up in a few days due to the virus.
Thoughts echoed in my mind. People are afraid. Nobody is going to want to help. In fact, they are going to be angry that I was on campus for two weeks and exposed them. But I never felt sick during those two weeks. All of this is assuming that I actually have the virus, which I don’t because, after a quick Google search, I found that GI symptoms of the virus are not especially common. But I’m a healthy young person. I don’t get sick often, yet I feel very sick now … What if I do have the novel coronavirus?
These thoughts echoed in my mind for hours as I shivered on my bedroom floor, petrified and unable to decide what to do. It occurred to me that I should call my parents, but again, the fears crept back in: They are going to think I have COVID-19 and fly halfway across the country to take care of me. But my mom has severe asthma and COPD — she is a high-risk patient with a poor prognosis if she contracts it. I don’t want to expose them, but I also have no idea where to go or who could take care of me. Following several repeated rounds of debating, my condition deteriorated and I decided to call 911. As I waited, I did a detailed online search of my symptoms to find parallels in COVID-19 symptoms and mine. I read every one tagged with any mention of GI symptoms, crying and bewildered.
My ambulance ride was no less fearful, as I evaluated the concern level of the first responders on scene. They asked me a battery of questions, none of which I responded “yes” to — presumably a positive sign. They were not wearing hazmat suits but every glance they gave me made me feel that they suspected I had the virus. This petrifying fear persisted once I got to the hospital, and I silently counted the number of people I passed (and could have exposed), while enduring the painful symptoms of whatever was actually going on with me. Conversations near the emergency department desk using the word “corona” made me concerned that they were about me.
Once I was approached by the resident physician, I really wanted to ask about my diagnosis and if there was a concern regarding COVID-19 exposure, but felt ignorant. I was also scared of the answers. What if I was made fun of for asking my question? As a future doctor, I should be more informed instead of adding to the craziness. And what if the doctor is actually worried about me having the novel coronavirus? I am a liability. Even when the physicians confirmed that none of my symptoms resembled those of COVID-19, I remained worried. I had a severe stomach virus, but what if that wasn’t all?
Even after I was discharged and my parents flew to campus to see me out of fear, I feared any potential exposure I might have acquired by being in a hospital. I was wearing a mask, but no other personal protective equipment. What if I don’t have symptomatic COVID-19 but I’m a carrier? What if I still spread COVID-19 to others? I have to get home.
That day, after my dorm items were packed up and moved out, my condition deteriorated again and I paid a second visit to the emergency room due to my dehydration, where all of my fears crept up again. Every clinician told me that they had no concern that I had COVID-19. They did not need to test me, but that did not ease up my panic. They did their best to reassure me, but my internal worries persisted.
It wasn’t after I was permanently off campus, out of the state, out of the airplane and finally home that I was even able to breathe without paralyzing fear. Even after I got home, I remained on edge until I was completely feeling back to normal and confirmed (by daily questioning) that both of my parents were not experiencing symptoms for a full two weeks.
Having any kind of illness can instigate self-doubt and concerns about the community’s changing perceptions of you, and their susceptibility to contracting to whatever you have. But particularly during this time when one particular virus is on everybody’s minds — one that’s responsible for worldwide closings and isolation procedures — any sick patient’s fears can become magnified.
Becoming sick during this unprecedented time casts doubt on what your existence can be doing to everybody around you and everybody you care about. This doubt calls into question what support systems are even safe and accessible to rely on without causing them harm. This doubt can delay accessing care, and hinder asking for clarification because of what the health care professionals’ answers may mean. Even if you have all of the up-to-date information as a medical scholar, you are not immune to the panic surrounding you — or the virus.