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Early in 2020, Anne Peters, MD, caught COVID-19. The author of Medscape's "Peters on Diabetes" column was sick in March 2020 before state-mandated lockdowns, and well before there were any vaccines.
She remembers sitting in a small exam room with two patients who had flown to her Los Angeles office from New York. The elderly couple had hearing difficulties, so Peters sat close to them, putting on a continuous glucose monitor. "At that time, we didn't think of COVID-19 as being in LA," Peters recalls, "so I think we were not terribly consistent at mask-wearing due to the need to educate."
"Several days later, I got COVID, but I didn't know I had COVID per se. I felt crappy, had a terrible sore throat, lost my sense of taste and smell (which was not yet described as a COVID symptom), was completely exhausted but had no fever or cough, which were the only criteria for getting COVID tested at the time. I didn't know I had been exposed until 2 weeks later, when the patient's assistant returned the sensor warning us to 'be careful' with it because the patient and his wife were recovering from COVID."
That early battle with COVID-19 was just the beginning of what would become a 2-year struggle, including familial loss amid her own health problems and concerns about the under-resourced patients she cares for. Here, she shares her journey through the pandemic with Medscape.
Thanks for talking to us. Let's discuss your journey over these past 2.5 years.
Everybody has their own COVID story because we all went through this together. Some of us have worse COVID stories, and some of us have better ones, but all have been impacted.
I'm not a sick person. I'm a very healthy person but COVID made me so unwell for 2 years. The brain fog and fatigue was nothing compared to the autonomic neuropathy that affected my heart. It was really limiting for me. And I still don't know the long-term implications, looking 20 to 30 years from now.
When you initially had COVID, what were your symptoms? What was the impact?
I had all the symptoms of COVID, except for a cough and fever. I lost my sense of taste and smell. I had a horrible headache, a sore throat, and I was exhausted. I couldn't get tested because I didn't have the right symptoms.
Despite being sick, I never stopped working but had just switched to telemedicine. I also took my regular monthly trip to our cabin in Montana. I unknowingly flew on a plane with COVID. I wore a well-fitted N95 mask, so I don't think I gave anybody COVID. I didn't give COVID to my partner, Eric, which is hard to believe as — at 77 — he's older than me. He has diabetes, heart disease, and every other high-risk characteristic. If he'd gotten COVID back then, it would have been terrible as there were no treatments, but luckily he didn't get it.
When were you officially diagnosed?
Two or three months after I thought I might have had COVID, I checked my antibodies, which tested strongly positive for a prior COVID infection. That was when I knew all the symptoms I'd had were due to the disease.
Not only were you dealing with your own illness, but also that of those close to you. Can you talk about that?
In April 2020, my mother who was in her 90s and otherwise healthy except for dementia, got COVID. She could have gotten it from me. I visited often but wore a mask. She had all the horrible pulmonary symptoms. In her advance directive, she didn't want to be hospitalized so I kept her in her home. She died from COVID in her own bed. It was fairly brutal, but at least I kept her where she felt comforted.
My 91-year-old dad was living in a different residential facility. Throughout COVID he had become very depressed because his social patterns had changed. Prior to COVID, they all ate together, but during the pandemic, they were unable to. He missed his social connections, disliked being isolated in his room, hated everyone in masks.
He was a bit demented, but not so much that he couldn't communicate with me or remember where his grandson was going to law school. I wasn't allowed inside the facility, which was hard on him. I hadn't told him his wife died because the hospice social workers advised me that I shouldn't give him news that he couldn't process readily until I could spend time with him. Unfortunately, that time never came. In December 2020, he got COVID. One of the people in that facility had gone to the hospital, came back, and tested negative, but actually had COVID and gave it to my dad. The guy who gave it to my dad didn't die but my dad was terribly ill. He died 2 weeks short of getting his vaccine. He was coherent enough to have a conversation. I asked him, 'Do you want to go to the hospital?' And he said, 'No, because it would be too scary.' Since he couldn't be with me. I put him on hospice and held his hand as he died from pulmonary COVID, which was awful. I couldn't give him enough morphine or valium to ease his breathing. But his last words to me were "I love you," and at the very end he seemed peaceful, which was a blessing.
I got an autopsy because he wanted one. Nothing else was wrong with him other than COVID. It destroyed his lungs. The rest of him was fine — no heart disease, cancer, or anything else. He died of COVID-19, the same as my mother.
That same week, my aunt, my only surviving older relative, who was in Des Moines, Iowa, died of COVID-19. All three family members died before the vaccine came out.
It was hard to lose my parents. I'm the only surviving child because my sister died in her 20s. It's not been an easy pandemic. But what pandemic is easy? I just happened to have lost more people than most. Ironically, my grandfather was one of the legionnaires at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia in 1976 and died of Legionnaire's disease before we knew what was causing the outbreak.
Were you still struggling with COVID?
COVID impacted my whole body. I lost a lot of weight. I didn't want to eat and my gastrointestinal system was not happy. It took a while for my sense of taste and smell to come back. Nothing tasted good. I'm not a foodie, I don't really care about food. We could get takeout or whatever, none of it appealed to me. I'm not so sure it was a taste thing, I just didn't feel like eating.
I didn't realize I had "brain fog" per se, because I felt stressed and overwhelmed by the pandemic and my patients' concerns. But one day, about 3 months after I had developed COVID, I woke up without the fog. Which made me aware that I hadn't been feeling right up until that point.
The worst symptoms, however, were cardiac. I noticed also immediately that my heart rate went up very quickly with minimal exertion. My pulse has always been in the 55-60 bpm range and suddenly walking across a room made it go up to over 140 bpm. If I did any aerobic activity it went up over 160 and would be associated with dyspnea and chest pain. I believed these were all post-COVID symptoms and felt validated when reports of others having similar issues were published in the literature.
Did you continue seeing patients?
Yes, of course. Patients never needed their doctors more. In East LA, where patients don't have easy access to telemedicine, I kept going into clinic throughout the pandemic. In the more affluent Westside of Los Angeles, we switched to telemedicine, which was quite effective for most. However, because diabetes was associated with an increased risk of hospitalization and death from COVID, my patients were understandably afraid. I've never been busier, but (like all healthcare providers), I became more of a COVID provider than a diabetologist.
Do you feel your battle with COVID impacted your work?
It didn't affect me at work. If I was sitting still, I was fine. Sitting at home at a desk, I didn't notice any symptoms. But as a habitual stair-user, I would be gasping for breath in the stairwell because I couldn't go up the stairs to my office as I once could.
I think you empathize more with people who had COVID (when you've had it yourself). There was such a huge patient burden. And I think that's been the thing that's affected healthcare providers the most — no matter what specialty we're in — that nobody has answers.
What happened after you had your vaccine?
The vaccine itself was fine. I didn't have any reaction to the first two doses. But the first booster made my cardiac issues worse.
By this point, my cardiac problems stopped me from exercising. I even went to the ER with chest pain once because I was having palpitations and chest pressure caused by simply taking my morning shower. Fortunately, I wasn't having an MI, but I certainly wasn't "normal."
My measure of my fitness is the cross-country skiing trail I use in Montana. I know exactly how far I can ski. Usually I can do the loop in 35 minutes. After COVID, I lasted 10 minutes. I would be tachycardic, short of breath with chest pain radiating down my left arm. I would rest and try to keep going. But with each rest period, I only got worse. I would be laying in the snow and strangers would ask if I needed help.
What helped you?
I've read a lot about long COVID and have tried to learn from the experts. Of course, I never went to a doctor directly, although I did ask colleagues for advice. What I learned was to never push myself. I forced myself to create an exercise schedule where I only exercised three times a week with rest days in between. When exercising, the second my heart rate went above 140 bpm, I stopped until I could get it back down. I would push against this new limit, even though my limit was low.
Additionally, I worked on my breathing patterns and did meditative breathing for 10 minutes twice daily using a commercially available app.
Although progress was slow, I did improve, and by June 2022, I seemed back to normal. I was not as fit as I was prior to COVID and needed to improve, but the tachycardic response to exercise and cardiac symptoms were gone. I felt like my normal self. Normal enough to go on a spot packing trip in the Sierras in August. (Horses carried us and a mule carried the gear over the 12,000-foot pass into the mountains, and then left my friend and me high in the Sierras for a week.) We were camped above 10,000 feet and every day hiked up to another high mountain lake where we fly-fished for trout that we ate for dinner. The hikes were a challenge, but not abnormally so. Not as they would have been while I had long COVID.
What is the current atmosphere in your clinic?
COVID is much milder now in my vaccinated patients, but I feel most healthcare providers are exhausted. Many of my staff left when COVID hit because they didn't want to keep working. It made practicing medicine exhausting. There's been a shortage of nurses, a shortage of everything. We've been required to do a whole lot more than we ever did before. It's much harder to be a doctor. This pandemic is the first time I've ever thought of quitting. Granted, I lost my whole family, or at least the older generation, but it's just been almost overwhelming.
On the plus side, almost every one of my patients has been vaccinated, because early on, people would ask, "Do you trust this vaccine?" I would reply, "I saw my parents die from COVID when they weren't vaccinated, so you're getting vaccinated. This is real and the vaccines help." It made me very good at convincing people to get vaccines because I knew what it was like to see someone dying from COVID up close.
What advice do you have for those struggling with the COVID pandemic?
People need to decide what their own risk is for getting sick and how many times they want to get COVID. At this point, I want people to go out, but safely. In the beginning, when my patients said, "Can I go visit my granddaughter?" I said, "No," but that was before we had the vaccine. Now I feel it is safe to go out using common sense. I still have my patients wear masks on planes. I still have patients try to eat outside as much as possible. And I tell people to take the precautions that make sense, but I tell them to go out and do things because life is short.
I had a patient in his 70s who has many risk factors like heart disease and diabetes. His granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah in Florida was coming up. He asked, "Can I go?" I told him "Yes," but to be safe — to wear an N95 mask on the plane and at the event, and stay in his own hotel room, rather than with the whole family. I said, "You need to do this." Earlier in the pandemic, I saw people who literally died from loneliness and isolation.
He and his wife flew there. He sent me a picture of himself with his granddaughter. When he returned, he showed me a handwritten note from her that said, "I love you so much. Everyone else canceled, which made me cry. You're the only one who came. You have no idea how much this meant to me."
He's back in LA, and he didn't get COVID. He said, "It was the best thing I've done in years." That's what I need to help people with, navigating this world with COVID and assessing risks and benefits. As with all of medicine, my advice is individualized. My advice changes based on the major circulating variant and the rates of the virus in the population, as well as the risk factors of the individual.
What are you doing now?
I'm trying to avoid getting COVID again or another booster. I could get pre-exposure monoclonal antibodies but am waiting to do anything further until I see what happens over the fall and winter. I still wear a mask inside but now do a mix of in-person and telemedicine visits. I still try to go to outdoor restaurants, which is easy in California. But I'm flying to see my son in New York and plan to go to Europe this fall for a meeting. I also go to my cabin in Montana every month to get my "dose" of the wilderness. Overall, I travel for conferences and speaking engagements much less because I have learned the joy of staying home.
Thinking back on my life as a doctor, my career began as an intern at Stanford rotating through Ward 5B, the AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital, and will likely end with COVID. In spite of all our medical advances, my generation of physicians, much as many generations before us, has a front-row seat to the vulnerability of humans to infectious diseases and how far we still need to go to protect our patients from communicable illness.
Anne L. Peters, MD, is a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and director of the USC clinical diabetes programs. She has published more than 200 articles, reviews, and abstracts, and three books on diabetes, and has been an investigator for more than 40 research studies. She has spoken internationally at over 400 programs and serves on many committees of several professional organizations.
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Cite this: How Do You Live With COVID? One Doctor's Personal Experience - Medscape - Aug 29, 2022.