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Dr. Anil Chopra is an internist with Arundel Medical Group in Maryland.
Despite taking all the precautions as a health care provider, I knew I would eventually add to the statistics of COVID-19 positive cases, and I did. I have an elderly mother at home, so I isolated myself in the basement and hoped for the best. Still, my wife and daughter soon also tested positive.
I did not have a fever, but I felt unusually cold. There was not much fatigue, but a kind of inertia set in; I did not want to read or even check my phone for my messages. There was loss of appetite and the senses of taste and smell, as well as a heightened sensitivity to sugar. But the frightening revelation was shortness of breath just climbing a flight of steps at home.
I had treated many COVID patients in the weeks before I had tested positive myself, and the fear of consequences proved worse than the disease itself. My oxygen saturation was in the mid-90s. Would my lungs betray me, or would I experience some other bizarre symptoms I had seen in some of my patients? For the first time in my life I became aware of my own mortality, the consequences of my demise for my family and all that mattered to me.
Some of my friends brought food and left it at my front door. Some called to express concern in the first few days and then I did not hear from them again. Some acquaintances called almost every day. I realized some of my friends were mere acquaintances and some acquaintances were real friends I had failed to recognize. I felt myself standing at the edge of a black hole and staring at the void of uncertainty of another day.
Late into one evening, I called a physician friend about the gastrointestinal symptoms my daughter was experiencing. He insisted that I should get an infusion of the monoclonal antibodies that the state was offering, if the symptoms were not more than seven days from the onset. Two of his relatives had done remarkably well, and not many physicians were aware of the efficacy of the infusion, which had prevented hospitalization significantly.
My friend filled out an online referral form, and the next day I got a call from the Baltimore Convention Center to come for the infusion. I drove myself to an underground facility as large as a football field. The makeshift cubicles looked clinical and surreal, with white LED lights. Human figures in masks and protective clothing walked as quietly and deliberately as astronauts. Time seemed to stand still as I waited.
I felt so much better the following day. I was able to walk up to the postal box and for some distance on level ground with tolerable shortness of breath. With each passing day I improved, but my appetite was still poor. I lost most of my belly fat and reverted to the weight I had been in medical school. So, COVID not only reset my body, but it also gave me time to be alone just by myself.
I was reminded of Hermann Hesse’s words for a happy life in his 1922 novel, attributed to the young monk, Siddhartha:
I can think.
I can wait.
I can fast.
The COVID experience forced me to reflect on my own life; I realized that all our dreams or aspirations or disappointments or achievements are meaningless once you stand witness to the face of death, when nothing is more precious than to be able to take a deep breath. And now in my second life no problem seems large enough to frighten me.