By Charissa Ho MD, CCFP
When the pandemic started, I expected to get COVID at some point. As the months dragged on, I took every precaution and it seemed less and less likely I would get it. I followed public health measures, usually going beyond what was recommended. Even as the number of cases rose exponentially in Alberta, it still seemed like it was something that happened “out there”, not to me or my household. How could it happen? We’re being careful.
One December evening, I started feeling off. My head felt foggy, muscles ached, body felt cold, and skin felt very sensitive. The feeling was odd – almost like I was going through SSRI withdrawal. This feeling would come and go throughout the evening. These feelings were unusual enough that I booked a COVID test for the next day. I told my clinic I was getting tested just in case, expecting I should be back the next week.
On Friday evening, I got the text from AHS. “CHARISSA is POSITIVE for COVID-19”. My heart sank. I felt shame, dread, anger, sadness. How could this happen? Where did I go wrong? Who else did I give it to? I am the doctor, the healer, I am not supposed to get sick, I am not supposed to get COVID. I told my husband, and the one friend I continued to see outside. Luckily, my husband had not done any clinical work in the 2 weeks prior. Unluckily, my friend is a nurse in a long-term care facility. My thoughts spiraled – what if I am the reason an outbreak in a LTC facility occurs? I cried all night. We also said goodbye to our puppy – my in-laws kindly took care of her while we isolated because we could not take her on walks. We also decided I would isolate in our bedroom while my husband stayed in the rest of the apartment.
I was one of the lucky ones. I ended up getting the odd fever at the beginning of my illness, and had a cough and nasal congestion for a few days. I had my own room with a window, my own bathroom, someone to bring me food. I was still able to do virtual visits with patients from home. I was able to do yoga in my bedroom. Throughout my isolation, I reminded myself how lucky I was to be able to complain that I am bored at home. I was able to pass time with Hallmark holiday movies and a 2000-piece puzzle I pieced together on my bathroom floor. My husband and I ate our meals together, looking at each other from different rooms, many many meters apart. I was able to joke about getting a call bell for my room service.
I realize all those things I was able to do comes with the privilege of being a physician. We have enough room in our home for us to isolate at home together. I am privileged to be able to continue to work and care for other people while the virus ran its course. We were also privileged to have the support from our families and friends – taking care of our dog, checking in on us and dropping off essentials and ice cream. As I went through this experience, I spoke with patients who tested positive for COVID who were not so lucky. Most cannot work from home, many have others to care for at home, some do not have the space to isolate by themselves. Most importantly, many have much worse symptoms.
I am now out of isolation. As I write this, my husband sits beside me, still having a few more days of isolation to go, not having developed any symptoms yet. Our puppy came home and is currently snoring at our feet. My friend, the LTC nurse, tested negative and her isolation ends tomorrow. Contact tracing did not consider the patients I saw in person as close contacts. In the end, we had no idea how I got the virus. Was it the grocery store? Should I not have gone into the store to pick up a couple of Christmas presents? Was it other people petting our dog? My case was yet another one that was untraceable. I now remain in those COVID statistics. I was one of 1,590 cases reported on December 12, 2020. I am now one of 71,434 Albertans that have recovered from COVID-19 as of December 20, 2020.
By sharing my experience, albeit a rather mild and boring experience, I hope that other physicians are able to go through their experiences without those initial feelings I had. The guilt, shame, and distress. Wondering where I went wrong. Wondering who else I have harmed. I was reminded by loving friends and family that the virus is running rampant, it is everywhere, it could happen to anyone, including us physicians.
My dear colleagues:
This has been an incredibly stressful time for us all as we navigate all the losses we have experienced this year while guiding our communities through theirs. Please take care of yourselves, be gentle on yourselves – you deserve it.