My Covid Romance
Point of Care testing professional, Robbie, writes about the emotional price of the pandemic on frontline healthcare workers.
Note from the editor: Robert asked us to not use his full name. There are some pretty tough elements to his story and he didn't want us focusing on the wrong things like who his employer or coworkers are.
I wasn’t going to start writing this today but after the day I had, I felt compelled. I’m going to tell you a little about myself first. I think perspective is the point of this piece but I also think that writing this and then reading it will be cathartic. I’ve done this sort of work for 14 years now and I can honestly say I have never experienced a day like I had today.
My name is Robert, I’m 37 years old and I have underlying conditions. I work for a medical laboratory in Knoxville, where I live. My position requires me to collect and process test samples in a territory that spans “point of care” sites from Lexington, Ky to Chattanooga, Tn.
If you have never worked in healthcare let me try to put you in our shoes just a little.
One important thing to note is that everyone on a healthcare team is vitally important. Whether it be the people that clean the building or change the light bulbs. Billing keeps the lights on for the provider team, providers depend on support, that support depends on each other and the providers. This entire thing is a machine and every part is vital to keeping it moving forward. All of these parts intermingle, so a single infection can affect an entire facility. Every cough. Every sniffle. You hear it, and you pay attention. You mentally note who did it and you pay attention to test results.
Your work relationships and trust are damaged.
What people need to understand about this virus is that it is all-consuming. You can’t leave it at work. People know what you do for a living; they know you’re in contact with infected people on a daily basis. So you don’t get to have any social interaction. None. If you have any social responsibility in you at all you isolate yourself because you shouldn’t want to be the plague rat. Your life, as you lived it, has changed and you live in a new disconnected world.
Your mental status as a social creature is damaged.
Your everyday life changes as well. All the way down to your hygiene practices. Before SARS-CoV-19 your day may have been - work, come home, change clothes and either start cooking or looking through menus to drop by somewhere for a drink and a meal. Errands had to be run. Mail, banking, the things you do on a daily.
Now you wake up and shower; put on freshly laundered scrubs, and get a fresh mask from your home supplies. You get in your car, go out of the garage and drive straight to work. No drive-thrus, no quick stops at Starbucks for a cup. Straight to work.
You spend the day trussed up like an astronaut drawing specimens and doing pharyngeal swabs on obviously sick people.
In most locations, you don’t test unless there are symptoms presenting because you’re that low on supplies. You are pretty certain that the bulk of people being ordered to get testing are, in fact, sick. The test is just a formality for some.
Then you go straight home, strip in the garage, put your scrubs and clothes in a garbage bag, and get in your downstairs shower. Scrub down, wash everything then spray down the shower. Then you go upstairs and immediately launder your work uniform, dress in the clothes that were previously laid out by your partner, or roommate, and go directly to your bedroom.
Groundhog Day. Over and over. You aren’t required to behave in this fashion but it’s really the safest thing you can do for yourself and your household when you KNOW you’ve been exposed.
Your comfort at home is damaged.
Your home relationships and feelings of safety are damaged.
Whether you are infected or not, the virus is always with you. It makes you feel like there’s a monster behind you breathing down your neck. If you turn around it has you. You have to keep plunging through the darkness hoping for breakthroughs and discoveries.
You have to wear hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable PPE for hours on end. You have to carry fear and guilt with you all the time.
You have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect yourself and your coworkers while simultaneously trying to provide the best care you can for your patient. You can’t quit even if you want to, because if we all quit, who would fight this? So you get to deal with the monster. Every piece of the healthcare system we have is integral so if one part fails, the machine fails. Your team is depending on you, no matter your role.
Your freedom is damaged.
Even through all of that though - the anxiety, the sadness, the suffering are only amplified. Because while you toil and shakily ignore the monster’s breath on your neck, there are people who go on as if it’s all make-believe. Your life is changed and there are those that keep making poor decisions as if the world, your world, has not changed. They flood your machine with sickness and then feel entitled to your help. Their trip to the beach, their family of 40 Thanksgiving, soon, Christmas and New Years’ gatherings. Church on Sunday.
Your trust in the community is damaged.
You keep the doors open, though, because your team is the only group of people that can serve your community. You know that doing so puts yourself and your household at risk. There’s no escape from this virus on any level of life.
Your entire life has been damaged.
Your days blend together and start looking like the one I had today. I spent all of it in close to freezing temperatures outside of the clinic in the pouring rain. We didn’t have tents. I collected dozens of specimens in a town that seems to be all sick.
I’ve been swabbed so many times that my nose has begun to bleed when I get tested. I can’t sleep much at night and I miss my family and friends. I have cried a lot, not for me, but for what we all know is coming following the holiday season.
Today, the patient load was so high we couldn’t let people in the building. Because it is too dangerous to put people in close quarters. It’s too dangerous to use the buildings that house our most precious commodity right now. Us. Healthcare.
We’re drowning but we’re doing our best to hold the beds above water. Things will never be the same.
My future has been damaged.
There are going to be serious generational scars. PTSD. Anxiety. Actual organ scarring. Death. There are going to be entire college courses and training seminars to understand exactly what happened to us. We don’t have any idea how or what we can do to move forward. We’re still not out of the woods. There’s a vaccine that we still don’t know how to distribute. There are children a year behind in education and a mass exodus of healthcare professionals. We’ve got our work cut out for us. I used to believe that America could do anything and overcome anything.
This time, I’m not so sure. We’re going to need everyone. All hands on deck, not just healthcare hands. We need all of you as much as you need us. So come to the fight. We’re here to fight with you... not against you.