I’m an emergency doctor, but when I caught coronavirus, I found new insights into this pandemic

When you become a patient with COVID-19, the language of the pandemic changes.

No longer is there talk of social distancing and debate about the rules in different stages of lockdown.

Life contracts, to be discussed in numbers: days since symptom onset, days since the swab, and digits displayed on probes announcing oxygen saturation and temperature.

Day one: something felt strange

On day one of my COVID-19 illness, I came home from work feeling achy and tired. I’d spent the day caring for patients in varying stages of their own illnesses — only one of whom had COVID-19.

I had a headache and a bit of a sore throat that persisted through an evening Zoom meeting. In a previous life, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

A woman in a pink jacket with shoulder-length hair
Dr Mya Cubitt is an emergency physician from Melbourne who contracted COVID-19. When she was diagnosed “suddenly everything stopped”.(Supplied)

But in this new world I took my temperature. To my surprise it was 37.9. I went to my bedroom and shut the door, and ever since I’ve been alone in a room, physically isolated from the world, my symptoms never worse than a mild cold.

My life is usually a whirlwind of activity. I am an emergency physician, working shifts in perpetual motion.

At home, I have three kids and a shift-working husband — life is an exciting, enjoyable juggle.

Even in stage 4 lockdown, I’m at work every day: busy, valuable, capable.

At home, my house is loud. The kids laughing and yelling, my parents there supporting us with a perspective that only a lifetime can bring.

We have a daily ritual of telling jokes around the dinner table and Grannie has taken to researching some before she attends the evening meal.

Sure we have an 18,000 piece puzzle in progress on a makeshift table, but we are tackling it, and all of this, together.

Suddenly, for all of us, everything stopped.

Day two: the novelty of Quarantining Mummy

On day two, my kids took great pride in bringing cups of tea and a plate of fried eggs to the door.

I smiled at them with pride. Quarantining Mummy had become a project for them to excel at.

I left my room only to get a swab.

Day three: the result is back

On day three, the hospital confirmed my swab was positive. I left my family home without hugs and a few tears.

The hardest part was watching my son, who every day asks for a cuddle with mummy on the couch under our favourite blanket, walk away knowing there was no point asking this time.

I got on the front foot. My boss sent an email to my colleagues on my behalf:

“Mya has tested positive for COVID today…. she is well… (and) asked me to share this news… Mya’s response to the news, just like that of so many healthcare workers, was to feel guilty, even ashamed. We all agree that there is no reason whatsoever to do so, and yet there it is. Emotions are like that. So by sharing the news, she hopes that we can take a small step toward breaking down that stigma.”

A flood of grateful emails come back my way, because no matter how excellent the PPE, how well-managed the “cohorting”, how valiant the attempts to maintain flow and reduce patient overcrowding, how excellently trained we are in safe donning and doffing, how vigilant the spotters, how thorough the engineering and ventilation assessments of our aging healthcare infrastructure — with COVID-19 in our communities, healthcare workers are beginning to feel a certain inevitability about contracting it.

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Emergency physician Jonathan Papson’s handy guide to putting on and taking off PPE.

At the “Hotel for Heroes” I met the owner, a woman who deserves a community award for the care and compassion she has shown healthcare workers.

After a physically distanced guide to the hotel, and a well-rehearsed spiel of logistics, she asked me twice, “But how are you?”.

She told me her daughter is a nurse and I understood the authenticity of the conversation.

A fresh sense of shame at ending up here was all I could muster. Healthcare worker infections have been such a focus for colleagues and the media and now suddenly, here I am.

I received an email with a link to a virtual wellness program offering daily scheduled exercise, guided meditation, art and music therapy.

I was inundated by so-called wellness checks from the state Hotel for Heroes program, from my hospital staff wellbeing team, from colleagues, family, friends, and even the ADF staff that ring in to check I am complying with my restrictions.

All exceptional humans, dedicating their time to persistently reaching out in my direction.

In quarantine, days converge

One day rolls into another. A knock on the door three times a day signals the delivery of food by people who rapidly retreat, and I’m greeted by the mournful sight of a tray waiting for me on a bench.

My eight-year-old daughter, prior to COVID-19 strictly limited in screen time, sent a constant stream of texts and emojis.

On the third day when she was feeling particularly down about me leaving home, I challenged her to help keep the boredom at bay.

She texted me a picture of a unicorn on a rainbow with a line from the book she was reading:

“Ok, two serves of dazzle and a side of razzle coming up.”

Day four: panic

On day four, a friend announced over FaceTime that she is pregnant and we lamented the missing hugs that would previously have been an avalanche upon her.

One colleague sent me daily links to random music — 2cellos Thunderstruck is my favourite.

Another colleague, knowing me too well, gets a book delivered: “The innovators prescription, a disruptive solution for healthcare”.

Many send me their list of Netflix favourites. Digital platforms and writing this article are the things that kept me sane.

Virginia Trioli published an opinion piece to remind us all that holding each other up is the most important thing at the moment: “In my occasional despair, I just have to remember to say thank you to them, to anyone who is trying to make all this work. Trying, maybe failing, but trying”.

He can’t come to me until he’s positive and I can’t go home until his Dad is or I get cleared.

In a panic, I feel desperate to get my parents out of the house and sent an SOS to every WhatsApp group I’ve cursed belonging to up until that moment.

The kindness train ends up being rolled out by a family who give their empty house, phone support and grocery deliveries and solve our problem in a way that takes me a moment to comprehend.

My mother initially refuses to go. She looked at the anxious face of my daughter and her first instinct was to cuddle and protect her.

They are her life, why would she walk away from them just as she feels she is needed more than ever?

Day five: strange conversations

On day five, a strange conversation occurred with my children: they ponder the merits of becoming COVID-19 positive in order to be with Mummy.

And then a massive box of love arrives in the post from a friend.

A box with four small cakes that spell the word LOVE
Every day, I feel grateful for the persistent kindness being sent to mitigate my isolation and loneliness.(supplied)

Day six: the enormity of the road ahead

I woke too early on the morning of day six wondering how my son was and then panicked that I couldn’t just walk down the hall to check.

This feeling was overtaken by the realisation that I couldn’t smell. I bit into a mandarin skin to check my tastebuds — sensing bitter was still going strong, but the chocolate biscuit and my coffee come without aroma and the taste of cardboard.

I mourned the loss, then pulled myself together over a sobering opinion piece by Stephen Duckett.

It made me think of all the healthcare issues present well before COVID-19 and still at the bottom of the too hard basket: mental health, aged care and an overcrowded emergency department.

Will this pandemic finally be the catalyst for change? I switch my Twitter profile picture to one of my nana eating ice cream with my daughter.

My son’s swab came back negative, right about the same time as his temperature spikes to 40. My husband dutifully hauled the three kids back to a screening clinic for another test.

Colleagues were surprised when I showed up at a Zoom meeting, but I use it to motivate me to shower and change for the first time in four days.

The conversation turns awkwardly to healthcare worker infections and I distract myself by joining a Twitter conversation observing the enormity of the vital work clinicians complete in their unpaid hours: in leadership, policy, research, education, examining and standard setting — so much of it done voluntarily.

As the meeting winds to a close early, I am left with the strong impression that clinicians are just too exhausted to really even talk to each other any more.

Day seven: I am not alone

On day seven the Department of Health and Human Services released its report on protecting healthcare workers.

I read it, comparing it to a guideline I wrote for Australian Council of Emergency Medicine on maintaining workforce wellbeing in COVID-19.

I read about some of the things we’ve been waiting on for some time now. I feel tired. But alongside it, there is a perverse feeling of hope.

If there are 2,691 other healthcare workers out there like me, maybe I don’t have to feel so alone?

My son’s second swab was negative.

Day eight: I am luckier than many

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Dr Mya Cubitt celebrating her husband’s birthday with their kids online

On day eight, I tried desperately to remember I am luckier than many, as I join my family in singing to my husband from an iPad on the table beside his birthday cake. Three more days to go.

Every day, I feel grateful for the persistent kindness being sent to mitigate my isolation and loneliness.

But in the small hours of every long night I remember a recent patient, a woman in her 80s, so desperately lonely and sad after months of lockdown that she stopped eating.

She lost weight and muscle strength, and inevitably, was admitted to hospital after multiple falls. Her daughter died of cancer last month and she wasn’t able to say goodbye.

She has spent the weeks following her daughter’s death, grieving alone. She told me she no longer wants to live in this lonely world and we cried together.

Illness, the great leveller, has confronted me with my privilege in my experience of this pandemic. I am overwhelmed by the sadness of that realisation.

Isolation is something I have never really faced before. In those last days of my quarantine, I was desperate for a hug.

Loneliness isn’t a new community phenomenon. It isn’t a symptom of COVID-19. But its vast escalation is a cruel side effect of humanity’s only current strategy in the fight against this virus.

My intention isn’t to minimise the experience of those who have suffered more physically than me, lost loved ones, nor the incomprehensible complexity of the decisions faced by those tasked with navigating our path.

But in my abrupt isolation, my own illness, I was suddenly scared in a way I wasn’t while caught up in the constant fight to save others’ lives.

Not because I fear I won’t survive COVID-19, but because I am petrified that in the success of our fight, we may well lose the very essence of our reason to live.

Dr Mya Cubitt is the Victoria Faculty Chair of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine and an Emergency Physician based at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.