My one burning question

The stigma of getting COVID-19 is dissipating now that it’s more prevalent in our area. But with that prevalence, comes the new reality of the different versions in which it plays out: from recovering at home with mild symptoms to the “unthinkable.”

We were somewhere in between that continuum.

We had the gift of never getting to the unthinkable. I also had the gift of having 100% control over caring for my husband. Even if I questioned the decisions I was making at the time. As you move towards unthinkable, you have less control.

And by less control, I mean none. 

Caretakers are at home, making life-saving decisions, without seeing their loved one in the hospital. People are losing their elderly parents in nursing homes, who they haven’t been able to visit. These are real stories unfolding around us here in our local community. 

This is inhumane and tragic. 

So while I keep saying I want to take away some of the mystery and fear and ease people’s minds through sharing our experience, there are some real and valid concerns over how this might play out.

For me, when my husband was at his worst, the scariest part was not knowing how the illness would progress. How I would know when it was time for the next level of care? This wasn’t like the flu or any other sickness. Of course, he’s been sick before (he even had H1N1 or “swine flu”, the man loves a good pandemic!). And then he got better. I might throw him a bowl of soup and crackers and cross every finger and toe I don’t get sick. But this was different in that I was playing an active part in caring for him and his recovery, as he truly couldn’t care for himself.

I can’t tell you how that will play out for you.

But I can tell you that in this crazy life I have led (and people, I have got some stories that will make our COVID-19 one look like a sneeze!!!), learning to be present is the ONLY way I know how to cope.

So when I had my happy hour Facetime with Marsha, a local mom and ER doctor, and I asked her the one question I just had to have answered, I KNEW I was talking to the right person for us all!

I know Marsha through mutual friends in town. When I wanted an expert to answer my one burning question, no other person came to mind. First, she’s so easy to talk to, and whenever we see each other, I enjoy chatting with her. I also knew she would give it to me straight. And then there’s her unique perspective in this pandemic as both a healthcare professional and a mom. 

I guess I’m very new at this blogging / interviewing thing because when I went into it, I had kind of thought about how the conversation was going to play out in my head. You probably shouldn’t guess what your interviewee is going to say before you ask them the question. But I was nervous. I wanted to ask meaningful questions.

(Before we move on, I want to be clear: This blog is not intended to give medical advice. We aren’t diagnosing, treating, or curing COVID-19. If you are experiencing symptoms, please call your healthcare provider.)

My burning question for Marsha on behalf of all of us was this: 

“How will we know the signs for when it’s time for that next step of going to the ER?” 

And Marsha’s answer was:

“Only you know your body.

Huh. 

In my head, that’s not how that played out.

The message that I have been receiving is, we don’t want to overwhelm the hospital system and to stay home. I mean, that’s the message we received over the phone when I made my husband call the infectious disease doctor. Stay home unless you are short of breath, stay home as long as you can, just stay home!

But Marsha offered a different perspective.

“Everyone knows their body,” she said. So if you are experiencing symptoms that are increasingly uncomfortable and concerning to YOU, you should be evaluated, especially if you have underlying health conditions that put you at a higher risk.

More specifically, in terms of shortness of breath, I was looking for a clearcut “sign.” There is so much emphasis on that particular symptom. But again, Marsha felt that you have to go with your body’s instinct and gut and know what’s normal for you. If walking up a flight of stairs is suddenly something overwhelmingly uncomfortable and concerning to you, you should be evaluated. If your symptoms have been going on for longer than you are comfortable with, you should be evaluated. 

She was very open and very fearless when she spoke. It seemed as if she welcomed those who felt it’s time to get further care, even if you go in, and they send you home to recover. It was less of a stern “stay at home” vibe and more of a, “please listen to your body and come to us when you feel concerned” vibe. It was a nice contrast to the media, which I personally find intimidating right now. It’s like I don’t want to “bother” them. (Show of hands if you’ve said the words to your kids: “Stop doing that, we CAN NOT make a trip to the ER right now!”)

Not only that, but she explained that they see more than just shortness of breath. I listed all of my husband’s symptoms in my last blog, and they far exceeded the “fever, cough, and shortness of breath” officially listed. In particular, Marsha mentioned that they see diarrhea as a symptom that accompanies a cough and cold-like symptoms.

I was happy that she mentioned that because the Burlington County Department of Health has also been tracking new symptoms, and digestive issues seem to be a biggie (I also had that symptom). It isn’t the only one that is trending anecdotally: loss of your sense of taste has also been widely reported.

Unfortunately, the powers that be aren’t listing these on any of the official websites, as they are merely “anecdotal.” But Marsha said that she belongs to ER message boards where doctors across the country are sharing their experiences. So when you show up with these unlisted symptoms, our local ER doctors are staying informed and as far ahead of the situation as they can.

When I asked her what her biggest frustration was: “learning on the fly.” “One day is like one month” in terms of information, she said. Knowledge is coming in by the hour, sometimes, all day, every day. 

Another frustration she has is the difference in treatment protocols between hospitals all over the country. There is not a set national protocol for treatment. Most hospitals have come up with their own protocols. 

Medical school is four years long. A residency is at least three years long. If you specialize in something like infectious diseases, that’s an additional two to three years. 

And here we are, looking to our medical professionals to know all the details, all the statistics, and all the treatments. As it’s playing out in front of ALL of us? 

Her frustrations and our fears come from the same source: the unknown.

This is why I think Marsha’s advice on knowing your body is brilliant because it’s the one thing we DO know. So if you do present with symptoms, Marsha says to call your physician first. And if those symptoms get to a point where it’s uncomfortable and concerning to YOU, then you should be evaluated further. 

From a caretaker’s perspective: it’s more difficult because it’s not your body, and you have to rely on what the patient is telling you. 

My advice is the same as Marsha’s: know your own body. What is your gut saying? It’s not the time to play Dr. Google because you aren’t going to find anything of value (and most of what we read is playing on our fears!). But new doesn’t ALWAYS equate with severity. So I think it’s important to remember that, and be present so that you can continuously separate fear of the unknown, versus when it’s time to take action. Keep your patient comfortable and hydrated, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

Not only is Marsha working on behalf of our community to keep her patients safe and healthy, but she’s also the mom of three. 

Think about that for a moment.

You might go to the grocery store consumed with fear of exposure.

Marsha goes to work and is guaranteed to be exposed. 

She works nights, so every morning she arrives at home and begins her process. She leaves her personal protective equipment in a bag in her car and removes her clothes in the garage, then heads straight to shower. 

When the school moved to the distance learning format a few weeks ago, her mother-in-law offered to take her children for her.

Again, this separation of a family plays out in so many different scenarios. 

There was only a short window of time to decide to send her kids to be with family, since the risk of all of their exposure at the time was the lowest it would be moving forward. Also, this was just before the quarantine rules in our state becoming stricter.  

Ultimately, she felt the right thing to do was allow her kids the safety (and fun!) of being in quarantine with their grandmother and cousins.

For Marsha, the hardest part of this pandemic hasn’t been the patients or an overrun ER.

The hardest part of this pandemic has been the separation from her kids. 

While her kids have been away, she’s been doing her best to keep her stress manageable. Binging Netflix and working out (we “see” each other on Instagram live with our favorite Barre instructor). She said she’s doing “ok.”

But it was really difficult for me as a mom to see her eyes well up when she mentioned her children, knowing that mine were just in the other room as we spoke.

The last thing I asked Marsha was this:

Do you think your kids are going to remember their separation from you? 

Or do you think they will remember your reunion?

“I know that they will remember the reunion and that moment when we get to hug each other again.”

Please take a minute to share your good thoughts for Marsha (and all the essential workers putting our health before their own!) in the comments section below.

Since writing this a few days ago, we have reportedly not yet seen the “peak” in our area. 

The best advice that anyone can take right now is: Do your part and do it the best you can. Stay home if you can. Stay six feet away and follow the store guidelines when you do have to go out. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Wear a mask if you have one, or make one. Are they medical grade and perfect? No. But they will help in a small way. And please for the love of all, don’t throw your dirty gloves in parking lots if you have to wear them! 

Find ways to manage your fear (I’ll be talking more about this!) so that you can adequately evaluate when it’s ok to stay home, and when it’s time to take those next steps. This way our ER’s can truly focus on those who need medical assistance.

Make smart choices for yourself and your family. And be kind to yourself and others. Much to the dismay of those perfect people out there, there will be no “quarantine awards” at the end of this (I’d totally want one for my strict 4-week quarantine). Here’s your pat on the back! (And a gentle reminder that everyone has a different reality.) But for the rest of the imperfect world, if we all take accountability for ourselves, the cumulative effect is a powerful one. 

Also, the following are some of the resources I’ve been using both personally and to write this blog. Please don’t get all up in arms and debate these sources because the truth is, NO ONE has all the information. These are purely my preference and opinion. 

Johns Hopkins University: Although I don’t love statistics right now, if you are responsibly consuming the numbers, you know they are not representing reality. But they can tell us trends. I like the JHU website for this – it has good visuals, and links to the latest studies. It also has a compilation of news articles, videos, and podcasts, and they do an excellent job of taking out the overly sensationalized pieces. Overall, I think this link has plenty to keep you informed! 

For a more functionally minded approach, I’ve been following Chris Kressor on Instagram and email. He provides a daily video update on Instagram, as well as a daily email you can sign up for on his website. I like the regular email because 1) they are short, 2) no-frills, and 3) they blend medicine and with an integrative mind-body approach. He’s a pretty even-keeled guy so I like to “hear” information from him, it doesn’t send me straight into reaction mode.

Of course, there are also those that I will tune in when they are speaking either on television or in a Podcast (and those who I REFUSE to tune in to).

But if you want some excellent COVID-19 media entertainment, watch the Cuomo brothers interviews. “Call mom” and then this one. Edited to add “who are you staying home for?”

Because they are a great example of the fact that you can be two things at once: sincerely concerned about the pandemic at hand, and lighthearted for your sanity. 

xo,

Liz

PS – I’m aiming to share a blog 1-2 times per week for as long as I have things to talk about.

Coming up: my fourteen-year-old daughter shares what her experience was like the last few weeks at home (I’ll try not to go too mama bear on the world). And a conversation I had on how important movement is now that our worlds have gotten so much smaller.

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2 Comments

  1. Jackie on April 9, 2020 at 7:24 AM

    Thanks Liz for sharing and being so forthcoming.
    And huge big thank you to Marsha! Stay safe.

  2. Nicole Riley on April 17, 2020 at 9:37 AM

    Liz, I cannot thank you enough for your blog! You have a way with words that cut right to the heart and soul!
    Thank you, Marsha, you and your colleagues are the true heros and will perpetually be rewarded. The sacrifices you are making in your life and your family are crucial for the success in fighting this pandemic in a never before seen battlefield. A war you never imagined being required to fight when you decided to become a physician. These sacrifices are completely selfless contributing to the greater good of society. There are no words to express my gratitude!

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