Valerie Brooke, MD
Updated: Apr 24
DETECTED. SARS-CoV-2. There were the words on the lab results page I had seen so many times at the hospital where I worked. I never expected to see them in my own chart. Since the beginning of the pandemic, like many others, I have had several episodes of scratchy throat, runny nose, with a dry cough, the usual change of season or I’m-a-little-run-down viral sickness. In the pandemic’s beginning, after passing massive empty casino parking lots on my way to work, scenes of an apocalyptic movie set, having any of these minor cold symptoms was always accompanied by a foreboding sense of despair. Before anyone knew much about the virus other than its killing and disabling power, the thought of getting sick with it stirred deep mortality fears, like the terrifying thought of contracting HIV, or being diagnosed with end stage cancer.
Two and a half years later, with parking lots filled back up with the regular comings and goings of human life, the start of my symptoms was more of an annoyance rather than an impending death sentence. Per hospital policy I would have to get tested for COVID, staying at home until the results came in. My home antigen test was negative, which wasn’t surprising to me as I didn’t really have any nasal discharge, just a bad cough that came up out of nowhere, sounding like bronchitis or a barking whooping cough. Could I have pertussis? I wondered. Hadn’t there been a resurgence of this disease recently? I went to the hospital lab, masked of course, and swabbed myself once again, sure that this test, like many other previous ones, would also be negative. I returned home and let my colleagues know that I wouldn’t be to work until the results returned.
I carried on life as usual for the two days I waited for the results. No living in separate parts of the house to avoid my husband; after all, it was just a cold. I remembered my physician friend Marybeth’s struggle in the beginning of the pandemic. Her husband was an ER doctor and for months in the beginning of the pandemic, he lived in their mother-in-law apartment in their backyard, avoiding his wife and two young children for months. Fear of this illness guided all decisions, with flight or fight hormones taking the reins. There was no fear guiding my choices while patiently waiting. We were no longer wiping down groceries or wearing gloves while filling up our cars with gas.
I developed a low-grade fever on the second day, nothing to write home about, and my cough deepened. The coughs would be accompanied with a painful burning sensation in my lungs, as if they were on fire. I chuckled to myself how easy it would be to produce a sputum sample if needed; gobs of sticky secretions coughing their way out to the light. I called the employee health line the morning of the second day, wondering why it was taking so long for the results. The lab was contacted and about 30 minutes later I was called back and told my results were in. I waited for the woman, whose job it was to clear me to return to work, tell me it was negative, and I could go to work that same day. I would have to bring my bottle of DayQuil with me, but I was fine to go back. It wouldn’t be the first or last time I managed cold symptoms while working. Instead of clearance however, all I got was silence. Then more silence. I quickly went to the computer and logged into my chart. DETECTED. There it was. I got the vid.
I let my colleagues know the results, feeling guilty that they would have to cover me for the rest of the week. In my practice, because it is in the hospital and we have a small group of physicians, when one is out, the others pick up their work. Patients need to be seen in the hospital every day, and one less physician around doesn’t change that. In addition to guilt, I admit there was also a feeling of failure with a small side dose of shame. How could I get COVID? I have received 4 vaccines, the two original ones plus two boosters, the last one including the Omicron variant in the mix. I never really went anywhere – out to eat, to happy hours, restaurants, or social events. I had become a happy home body since the start of the pandemic, realizing that I’m quite comfortable being introverted, reading, and writing and putzing around in my kitchen and garden. I wear a mask all day long at work every day. I hadn’t gone to the gym in a month. I couldn’t figure out where I had gotten exposed, and how the virus had bypassed my immune system that was so prepared to fight the infection.
I felt like I had failed. I failed by getting COVID. I had fallen off my pedestal as the good doctor. The one that followed all the rules and didn’t get sick. I realized I had judgement towards those in healthcare that had succumbed to the disease. Not me I thought. I’m not going to get COVID. After a few days of rest, reading and writing, a gift really to have so much time with nothing I had to do, or tick of my to-do list, I let the guilt and shame go. I am human, did my best to not get sick, and got infected regardless. And it will not kill or disable me.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have gotten COVID now, and not two years ago. I am receiving treatment with an antiviral medication. I am resting at home, not fearing that I could die. I am taking care of my body as I continue to cough, each day feeling better. I have sympathy for anyone who has gotten this disease, or watched their loved ones die from it. As of today, per the John Hopkins website, 6.7 million people have died from COVID around the world, and 1.1 million of them reside here in the United States. Those numbers are unfathomable to me. Millions of mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, co-workers, friends, and lovers. Millions of people with varied lives and stories, struggles and joys, pleasures and pain. Today I send a prayer to all those currently suffering with this disease, and a prayer to the loved ones that were left behind. As soon as my self-quarantine is complete, I’m going to wrap my husband in a long hug and tell him how grateful I am to be alive and loved.