As I write this in late March, a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am shaken. I see and hear businesses failing all around me. Yes, some are lucky enough to only be shuttering their businesses temporarily but this is still creating hardship for employees. At my own work, we are seeing patients to the best of our abilities while taking everyone’s health and safety into consideration.
There is a screening protocol to screen at-risk patients when they call for their appointments. We screen them again before entering the office. They are asked a long list of questions and have their temperature taken. Being part of a large orthopedic practice, we have been able to implement a great telemedicine program. I am using the telemedicine program as much as possible to limit in-office exposure for patients whenever I can.
I see coworkers and colleagues being laid off or furloughed. I see my husband working his hardest at his essential job and I see the worry of what is to come. Although many individual jobs are in question, there is still plenty of hope that businesses will survive. That is certainly the hope at my practice as well. As these days stretch into weeks, I don’t think any of us can truly know what will happen. This is not something for which any of us could truly prepare.
Some of the doctors here are wearing scrubs and some are wearing masks. I personally am wearing jeans and a top with my company’s name on it. I wear the top because I am proud of everyone in my company for truly thinking and acting like a family in this time. I wear the jeans because that is what has always been most comfortable for me. I think we are all seeking comfort in any way we can. I am also now wearing a face mask at all times in the office. Masks are also available to our patients.
I remove my jeans and top in the garage when I arrive home, and I scrub anything still exposed. Will that make a difference? I do not know. My home is my sanctuary and my safe place. It is where my heart, my husband, lives. Like I said, I honestly don’t know if it will make a difference but I do know I would rather not find out the hard way. Along with the financial, mental, emotional and sometimes physical stress inherently caused by this pandemic, I battle with a more personal stressor.
I am an immunocompromised doctor. I am also a worrier. However, the reality is that patients are going to come in no matter what. I can actually count how many patients this past flu season told me (usually as I left the exam room) that they had just tested positive for the flu. Some had even come right from that testing! As a result, I tend to be very cautious and aware of sanitation and cleanliness in the office. We all should. That really seems to be the best solution. The only other solution I see is to not expose myself and my diminished immune system to my patients. I do not consider that to be an option.
I know I am not alone in my immunocompromised status. I know that there are people with diagnoses that are much more life-altering than mine. I also know that it is my choice to do what I do, potentially exposing myself to my patients’ illnesses. I would not change what I do for anything. I have moments when my disease runs me down or creates so much pain it is difficult to get to the office and be “me.” However, stepping away from caring for patients will never be a choice unless their safety or my skill becomes a concern.
I know the appropriate precautions. Colleagues who have direct contact with me and my patients are aware of my condition. Patients are coming in with their own fears and worries, and their own conditions that need treatment. I cannot and will not allow my worries about taking a shot or not overcome the needs of my patients. That will not serve any of us well. Nor will I serve my patients well if I am in pain or not myself. Right now, my patients deserve the very best of me. My friends and family deserve the very best of me.
Overall, although it does not help my worrying personality, being a doctor with immune compromise is not a terrible thing. I am able to relate to some of my patients a little better because of it too. Especially since the time I was diagnosed in my early 30s, I feel that I empathize with patient concerns and worries a little better. I can show them that although these diagnoses can be scary, they are certainly not life- or career-ending.
I am an immunocompromised doctor and I would not change a thing.
Dr. Hook is a Trustee of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association (NYSPMA), Chair of the NYSPMA Public Education and Information Committee, and a sub- Chair of the American Board of Podiatric Medicine Membership Committee in the Crisis Communication and Audit division. She is in private practice at Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists in Syracuse, N.Y.