Next Generation: I Was a Doctor With COVID-19 — And I Will Not Be the Last

Next Generation is a Brigham Clinical & Research News column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. If you are a Brigham trainee interested in contributing a column, email us. This month’s column is written by Internal Medicine resident Maxwell Coll, MD

Max Coll

Purple-gloved hands protruded through the slightly open window of my car, holding my would-be torture device. I fought back tears as the testing swab dug into my nasal cavity for an interminable 10 seconds. Then, I drove back home to wait for the test results and learn whether I was positive for COVID-19. I found myself thinking, “How did I get here?”

When I started my medical residency last July, I never expected to find myself working on the front lines of a pandemic just eight months later. As we’ve learned more about COVID-19, it’s become increasingly clear that being a young, healthy adult does not mean that we are not at risk of becoming gravely ill. Physicians have already died on the front lines, some barely 30 years old with their entire lives ahead of them. Unfortunately, more health care workers will continue to fall ill and die on the front lines.

I began feeling symptoms the day prior to the drive-through test, during my first day off in over a week. They were mild at first, a slightly sore throat accompanied by a dry cough; nothing terrible, but, given my exposure risk, I was asked to get tested. The next day, I woke up with fatigue, muscle pains, and a fever. I could barely get out of bed. When I received a call from Occupational Health Services, I knew before they even said the words that I had tested positive for COVID-19.

I immediately had to isolate myself from my beautiful and caring wife Molly, unable to interact with her directly in any way. (Thankfully, she continues to be asymptomatic.) There were many ups and downs during my illness. I had days where my fever broke, and the fatigue seemed to be improving only for everything to feel worse the next day. Two weeks in, I had to go to the Emergency Department (ED) after I suddenly began experiencing palpitations, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Molly drove me to the hospital but was not allowed to enter due to the restrictions on visitors. We remained on the phone — me alone in the isolated exam room, her pacing outside the ED doors in the rain, a fear in her voice I’d never heard before, begging me not to die. I was given IV fluids, inhaler treatments and a thorough work-up, and finally sent home once everything appeared to be stable.

The truth is, I felt guilty when I became ill with COVID-19. Guilty for being taken away from treating patients during this most critical time. Guilty that getting sick had put an even greater burden on my colleagues, who were already working above and beyond their call of duty, scheduled to work increasingly long and heart-wrenching shifts. Guilty that I was now a number, contributing to the ever-increasing shortage of healthcare workers.

I felt anxious for my colleagues. Would they soon meet my same fate and contract COVID-19 as well? As the number of patients continued to rise exponentially and our supply of personal protective equipment precipitously dropped, would they be properly protected from the deluge of patients?

Mainly though, I felt lonely and isolated. I missed having Molly beside me. I missed hugging her. I missed seeing her face behind a mask. One of the untold stories of this pandemic is the rise in depression, fear and loneliness within the medical community. We are truly scared. We are trying our best to stay strong in order to better help our patients, but as we continue our deployment into battle against this virus, our fear of how many colleagues we may have to say goodbye to only grows.

I am 29 years old, and I have had to have discussions with Molly about what my wishes would be if I had gotten to the point where I had to be intubated. These are conversations that all my colleagues are having with their loved ones. Some, who are now new parents, have been updating their wills and making arrangements for who would take care of their children if they were no longer able to.

Yet, despite the guilt, anxiety, and loneliness, my colleagues continue the fight to help the patients in front of them. While I was recovering, one the things I looked forward to most was returning to the hospital and joining them in caring for our patients. I thought about not just trying to treat the virus itself, but caring for the person alone in that room, without family in sight, experiencing the same feelings of loneliness and isolation I had felt.

I am not the first health care worker to go through this and I will not be the last. Many of us will still be feeling the effects of this pandemic long after the media has moved on, but we continue to be united in our goal, to beat COVID-19, to save our patients, and protect our communities. To my colleagues on the front lines: I know you are scared. I am too. But in the middle of this pandemic, there is no place I would rather be than beside you all doing what matters most: taking care of people.

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