COVID Diary: A Physician Gets Sick.

Dr. Leslie Hayes took every precaution, but she still caught COVID — her thoughts on contagion, masks, the vaccine, and the holidays.

“The virus had gone through 50 people before I got it. Many of them took precautions and then just got unlucky, but some of them were careless or didn’t think the rules applied to them …”

Leslie Hayes, M.D., treats patients in Española, New Mexico, a state experiencing one of the most severe crises from the late-November / early-December COVID-19 spike.

Just before Thanksgiving, Leslie caught COVID.

Alexandra Blum, “The Third Wave.” Mixed media, November 2020.

So, 2020 has not been kind to me. I broke my hip and then I got COVID. Unrelated but inconvenient.

So far, it has been a “mild” case, but mild COVID is still quite unpleasant. As I write, I am on Day 10 of symptoms, which have included fatigue, shortness of breath, a horrible sore throat, and a runny nose.

My symptoms got acutely worse on Day 6, and I was really worried that I was headed into Bad COVID territory. I am so grateful that I got better instead of worse.

I am really not sure how I caught COVID. I am a doctor, yes. But I am 100% masked at work and wear face shields with patients. My hip fracture kept me out of the front lines for months, and I haven’t treated any acute COVID cases. I also wash and sanitize my hands so much that my fingerprint is no longer recognizable to open my home laptop.

However, community spread is so high here in Española, New Mexico, that exposure is impossible to completely avoid. (And please don’t argue with me that this means masks don’t work. The medical profession has never said that masks are 100%. They decrease the likelihood by 80–90%, but unfortunately, they don’t make it zero.)

One of my friends who had COVID earlier was very good about saying, “I did the best I could [to avoid infection], and after that, it was out of my hands.” I love her attitude and have tried to adopt it, but I still worry a lot.

I am grateful that I never lost taste or smell, as eating has been one of the things that has brought me joy while I’ve been sick. (Thank you to my awesome husband for the gourmet meals.)

Candlelit COVID meal by David Rich, Leslie’s husband.

One of my biggest worries this week has been that, despite taking all precautions, I unknowingly spread it to a co-worker or a patient or a family member. I am very happy that I’ve always done everything possible to stop the spread, and I am still hoping that I succeeded.

COVID had its first birthday while I was sick. Assuming it takes about seven days between acquiring COVID and passing it on, statistics indicate that the virus had gone through 50 people before I got it. Many of them took precautions and then just got unlucky, but some of them were careless or didn’t think the rules applied to them — they went around without masks, gathered in large groups, coughed in the grocery store …

I must admit to being irritated with those people.

On November 19, when I got sick, there were only 60 available (staffed) hospital beds in the whole state, and only 29 ICU beds. That day, there were 3,600 cases of COVID in the state, and many of those cases would end up trying to get into the hospital — along with other patients needing acute care for heart attacks and other “ordinary” crises.

As of December 9, 2020, the state death toll for COVID is 1,756.

My story parallels that of a friend who is my age, lives in Albuquerque, and was completely healthy until she developed COVID-19. She tested positive the same day I did, although she’d had symptoms since November 6. The week before, she called 911 twice for severe shortness of breath, and she went to the ER, where she was started on a corticosteroid, dexamethasone. Nonetheless, her oxygen saturation dropped to 65%, and she was taken back to the ER by ambulance.

Jane had to stay on a gurney in the ER for TWO DAYS because there were no beds. She struggled for every breath and came very close to being placed on a ventilator. The doctors asked if she wanted them to take heroic measures.

Even when she got a bed in a semi-private room, she could not go two minutes without an oxygen mask. She turned a miraculous corner — but is still suffering.

She was lucky. In comparison, I was very lucky.

***

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I will get the vaccine. If I hadn’t had COVID already, the answer would be an emphatic yes.

The vaccine’s availability will be very limited initially. Since I am likely immune for three months or so, I will let other health care workers who are still at risk get it ahead of me. At that point, I am hoping we will have better data on the likelihood of reinfection. If it seems like it’s at all a possibility, I will get the vaccine.

I do not want to get COVID again. I do not want to be a carrier infecting my family or my patients.

I am sharing my experience in hopes that maybe some people who are not being careful will be at least a little more careful. In particular, please think very carefully if seeing your family for the holidays is worth it. If you feel you must — and you live in a place where private gatherings are allowed — travel by car, wear a mask even indoors, and stay six feet apart. And eat outdoors or with the windows open if you can.

Please decide that you can.

My experience with COVID has really not been a bad case, and despite that, it was unpleasant — painful, frightening, debilitating — and not something that I would wish on anyone.

If people get together for the holidays, many of them will have my experience, and unfortunately, many will suffer with a much more severe illness.

It is absolutely not worth it.

Happy (and COVID-safe) Holidays to all of you.

****************************************************

Leslie Hayes, MD, works for El Centro Family Health in Espanola, NM. She is board-certified in both addiction and family medicine. She wrote about the early days of COVID for Broad Street’s first blog post, in March.

***

For updates on the COVID crisis in New Mexico, check the Albuquerque Journal online and the New Mexico Department of Health website.

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