Back From the Brink of COVID-19

My name is Dr. Charles J. Gainor. I am a board-certified Family Physician who has been working full time as an Emergency Medicine Physician since 2000 in multiple Emergency Departments around North Carolina.

On March 25, I intubated a 16-year old asthmatic who was the sickest child I have ever seen. The child had been seen earlier in the day at the Emergency Department in Emporia, Virginia, treated and discharged. Upon arriving home, she progressively deteriorated and EMS was called. Upon arrival at my hospital, the child was minimally responsive, in respiratory failure and impending respiratory arrest. She was stabilized and transferred to pediatric ICU at Vidant in Greenville, NC. I checked on her every day and she remained on the ventilator for 3 days. On the 3rd day she was taken off the ventilator and the endotracheal tube was removed. The child was tested for COVID-19 and it was reported as negative (which I felt was a false negative; current viral testing can have at least a 30% false negative rate).

Within 24 hours, I felt like a ton of bricks hit me. Severe body aches and headaches requiring acetaminophen and ibuprofen every 6 hours, a fever, shaking chills, severe sweats, chest pain, heart racing, shortness of breath with exertion and wheezing.  Also, I would wake up at 3 a.m. several days having hallucinations that I was melting away or being consumed by insects. I stayed home in bed, taking vitamin C and D supplements as well as zinc, and drinking gallons of chicken soup spiked with honey and sriracha.  According to our thermometer, I was not running a fever (likely due to acetaminophen and ibuprofen), so I was not tested for COVID due to shortages of tests and lack of fever. It wasn’t long, however, before my temperature reached 100.3. I was tested for COVID and was positive.

I was prescribed Chloroquine and Zithromax which I took, resulting in diarrhea and worsening chest pain. (I think it may have helped me, but to be honest, I do not know.) Regardless, after the last dose, I felt as if I had life again. I started exercising and walking the dog while isolating myself from my family and anyone else in society. Fortunately, neither my wife nor kids had any symptoms.  As of this writing, I have just now begun sleeping in my own bed again, and feel safe being within six feet of my family.

I am now back at work doing the night shift in the ER. On May 1, I donated 800 ml of convalescent plasma, hoping for COVID antibodies so that it could help as a last-ditch salvage treatment for critical COVID patients in the Vidant Medical System. I ultimately did test positive for antibodies, so I now give plasma every two weeks. I will continue to donate until this crisis is over, or until a monoclonal antibody infusion is developed.

I did everything right on March 25; at the time we had no n95 masks, I used the CDC approved surgical mask with plastic face shield, I used a video assisted Glide scope, but despite that, I still had a high volume COVID exposure when I intubated this patient. We have learned since that we should reduce exposure by putting patients in a Plexiglas box with holes for arms. In summation I felt like a soldier sent to war without weapons or body armor.

As the country begins to open, the initial curves in NY and California have flattened, but other areas are having increasing cases.  I fear we will have a new surge, and am disturbed that Dr. Fauci is forecasting a resurgence of COVID in the fall and winter.  We are still doing woefully inadequate testing to see who is safe to return to work, who has developed antibodies, who are the pre-symptomatic patients who will develop COVID soon but could spread COVID now, and who are the asymptomatic carriers who carry the deadly virus without signs but can infect others.

I had a mild case of COVID and am recovering, but I see our plight every day: a health care system that doesn’t have enough reserves to handle a pandemic, a lack of accurate testing, and an economy in which people are hurting and need to go back to work. Our dilemma is that the line we must walk to ensure the health of our population, without decimating the economy in the process, is so razor thin that it’s slicing right through us.


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