When my husband told me on Wednesday that the hospital would need him on service, after all, this week, I asked if he’d be on the COVID ward. “No,” he assured me, and because I wanted to, I believed him.
Gullible me. There’s no such thing. There’s only patients. And now, he’s seen two of them. The first, yesterday, was a man in his 60s. My husband thought he probably had the coronavirus, but he wasn’t sure.
The woman today was 58, which happens to be my husband’s age. After he saw her X-rays and listened to her lungs through his stethoscope, he was almost certain her results would come back positive. Then he left the room and called me. I know him well enough to know the sound of him feeling nervous.
There’s a new phrase I can’t get out of my head these last few weeks. It’s like when I had a root canal a couple of months ago and my tongue kept sliding over and over to that one spot, pressing against that temporary crown. Not because it felt good, but because I kept wondering if it would still hurt. It always did.
The phrase is viral load. Two words so spiky with meaning I can neither swallow them nor say them. They refer to the amount of virus one person is exposed to over a short period of time.
“Healthcare workers don’t necessarily have a higher fatality rate, but do they suffer, disproportionately, from the most severe forms of the (coronavirus) disease?” asked Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia University physician, in this week’s New Yorker magazine.
He interviewed, among others, a German virologist named Rik de Swart, who wondered if what we know about the measles virus could also hold true for the novel coronavirus. “In measles, there are several clear indications that the severity of illness relates to the dose of exposure,” he told Mukherjee. “And it makes immunological sense, because the interaction between the virus and the immune system is a race in time. It’s a race between the virus finding enough target cells to replicate and the antiviral response aiming to eliminate the virus. If you give the virus a head start with a large dose, you get higher viremia, more dissemination, higher infection, and worse disease.”
In other words, with enough exposure to really ill people, you can be truly fucked.
Two days into five days at the hospital, and my husband may have already seen two COVID-19 patients ill enough to get admitted. Yes, he was wearing protective gear, but viruses are small and wily creatures. Plus that’s potentially only the beginning of his exposure. There’s all the people he’s seen at the clinic over the last couple of months, since the precautions and the mostly-telephone visits started, but there’s also the patients before that, too. Of course, no one he’s seen has gotten him ill, but we also don’t know how this virus works. Can it build and build in your body, like a tower of Jenga blocks?
These are the questions that come flying like arrows at me when I jolt awake at 5 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep.
But here’s the one that really haunts me: is his load heavier because of me?
I’ve tested negative for the coronavirus, but in the chaotic storm of these early viral days, when we’re still struggling to pin down the who what where and why of COVID-19, a negative result turns out to be less meaningful than your symptoms. There are so many ways that a test can miss the virus. From what my husband and another physician friend of mine tell me, that is particularly true of the sputum test I took.
Anyway, four days after I got my test results, I’m still in bed half the day. I’m getting better slowly, but still unevenly — two good days, followed by a bad day or two. All of my symptoms — the fatigue, the headache and body aches, the chills and cough that are mostly gone now — track closely with those of the virus. All three of our kids eventually got minor versions of my illness. Only my husband has stayed well.
On the one hand, when I call what I had the coronavirus, I breathe a sigh of relief. Phew — that’s in my rear view mirror. No more worries about fever, breathing, ICU for me. I wear a mask out walking the dog (my only outings in this still-recovering time), but I also consider myself (tentatively) done.
I read somewhere that in Italy, 20 percent of all healthcare workers got sick with the coronavirus. That means 80 percent did not. I’m hoping that whatever we had in this house gave my husband a leg up on the infection. His body had a chance to see it, build its defenses, figure out how to efficiently shrug it off.
I hope I never have occasion to berate myself for not wearing my mask enough, for not spraying enough Lysol, for not scrubbing my hands long enough, with enough soap.
I’m so proud of him every day. He’s scared. He knows all about viruses and loads. But he keeps going to work, keeps seeing patients, keeps providing care. Like medical assistants and EMTs and techs and nurses and other doctors, he makes this choice each day that potentially brings him face to face with the enemy. Meanwhile, until I got sick, I wore a mask to Trader Joe’s and left with a pounding heart.
Still, this whole situation is unimaginable. I didn’t marry a soldier. I married a doctor. I didn’t know there would be a war that would put him on the front lines.
I’d like to report that I’ve found some way of using meditation or prayer or even long hot baths to banish my worries. Mostly, though, I just pretend this isn’t happening. Until I get those calls from the hospital. Then pretending becomes a lot harder.