Time capsule: When the virus went from being a distant threat to a reality.
I wrote this post in September 2021 and I am posting it out of my drafts folder. This is a really difficult one for me to re-read but it illustrates the emotions I went through early on in the pandemic that were heightened by my position as a physical therapist in a hospital setting. My therapist and I decided that it's time for me to start processing my experiences from the pandemic and sharing this post is a good place to begin. Please don't hesitate to ask for help from a professional if you need to process your own experiences. No one should struggle in silence and there's no shame in asking for help. I'm here for you.
January 2020. I think we all remember the low buzz on the news of this distant virus that was found in China. Big deal, it's far away and it won't affect us here in the states. We went about our lives like normal, we had all just celebrated a new year and were beginning to take steps toward our new year resolutions. I had started swimming at a local YMCA, trying to whip myself into shape for the first time in a couple years.
As we approached February, I think we started realizing how much it had spread and started to accept that it might reach our country. But it still wasn't a reality. Every morning I would wake up and read "The Skimm" which is a quick daily email I get to my inbox that highlights some news stories around the world. And every day, there was a little more talk of this "COVID-19" thing. It hadn't gone away like I thought it might.
Then came March. This is when it hit us. First in Washington state, which is still so far away from where I live. But I knew that at some point it would start showing up in my hospital. If you watched the news around this time, you probably thought that half of Italy's population was dead. The U.S. hadn't really changed anything at the beginning of the month because we didn't think it was here. As the month progressed, the country slowly started shutting down. Gyms and restaurants were closed down, it seemed like the only thing left were gas stations and grocery stores.
I worked at 3 different hospitals at this time, and all 3 hospitals were preparing for wild surges like New York City was experiencing. I began picking up every shift possible because I wanted to do my part to help. Remember, I had only been working for 6 months - I was eager and bright-eyed and inexperienced and thought that my job had to come first if I wanted to succeed in this career. One of my bosses at hospital #2 saw my jam-packed calendar in front of me as I was double checking that I didn't have any overlapping shifts. She said, "Katie, this is not going to be over in a matter of months. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And you're going to burn yourself out if you start doing a schedule like this." I had no idea just how right she would be.
That day I made a difficult phone call to my grandparents, ages 91 and 92 at the time, to tell them that due to my position in healthcare I probably wouldn't see them until all of this was over. They understood and they said they were going to limit who they were seeing to keep themselves safe from the virus. None of us knew when it would be over and I knew that at their age, something could happen to them any time and I may not ever see them again. I held myself together over the phone but bawled as soon as we hung up. (Don't worry! I've seen my grandparents a lot recently. They're doing great!)
On the evening of Wednesday, March 25th I received my first of many "exposure" emails. I was in the bedroom and my husband was playing League of Legends in the living room. He said that when I came out of the bedroom my face was ghost white, and he wondered if someone had died. I told him about my exposure, and I was afraid of getting close to him even though we had been breathing the same air all evening. I laid in bed for about 2 hours under the covers and couldn't do anything but cry and tremble. I felt so guilty about the profession I had chose and felt like I was putting my husband's life at risk.
I took a test the next day and patiently waited for the results but I was certain that the cold I was experiencing wasn't the virus. There was no way. But on the morning of March 30th I received an unexpected phone call telling me it was positive (This was also the same day as my husband's birthday and quite possibly made for the worst birthday present ever). I spent about 4-5 hours on the phone with the department of health, all of my bosses at 3 different hospitals, my family, my husband's family, and my gym.
After the dust had settled, my husband and I had to stay at home for 2 weeks and had no contact with another soul. Luckily our symptoms were very minor and we never needed medical attention. I found myself playing a lot of Animal Crossing while he sharpened his League of Legends skills. My depression became overwhelming and we decided that it would be okay for us to go outside to take a walk as long as we wore masks and avoided every other person we might encounter. This became my only solace, and I remember listening to a lot of Bon Iver to calm me down. I was afraid that I could kill someone simply by breathing on them and I don't know if I've ever truly gotten over that feeling, even today.
When I was allowed to return to work, I kept my head down and interacted with as few people as possible while still getting my work done. I cried almost every day on my way to work and couldn't wait to leave the hospital the minute I was able to leave. My home was my bubble, the only place I knew my husband and I were both safe and wouldn't catch the virus. My husband was working from home and I was the only one having interactions at work that could result in us getting sick. The guilt was overwhelming and I wanted to quit every day. My typical reaction to overwhelming stress is to run away, but there was nowhere in the world I could go where I could escape this. Everywhere was affected and I felt more and more trapped every day.
The only "good" thing I remember happening during this time was when we had so few patients to see due to all elective surgeries being cancelled. One day I was finished by 11am and there was nothing else for me to do. I went to my boss and I was thrilled when she told me I could leave early since I was hourly at the time, and she was thrilled because it would save our department money. I left the hospital feeling so relieved to return home to my little bubble and feel safe again.
I wish I could end this post on a happy note but unfortunately things didn't start to improve for a very long time and I don't want to sugar coat my experience. There will be lighter posts coming but I want to make sure I express myself as accurately as possible as I go through this process. I felt hopeless, terrified, guilty, trapped, depressed, anxious, and yet I continued to go to work every day and do the job I was hired to do. It wasn't rewarding, I didn't consider myself a hero. Most days were just sad and scary.
What were your experiences early on in the pandemic? What changes occurred in your life? Did you feel anxious and hopeless like me or did you find better ways to cope? I'd love to hear your story.