When a Surgery Resident Gets COVID Pneumonia

27 Feb 2021

By Dr. Sara Parmiter

I awaken fatigued with body aches, not abnormal for a surgery intern. No one would think twice about taking acetaminophen and going to work. That is how I justify it to myself now. Hurrying to the clinic, I force myself to walk faster. I sit and catch my breath feeling the sweat roll down my back. I’m just tired. Walking back to the hospital, I stop and take a break; my legs are filled with sand. By the days end, I struggle to concentrate; it is physically taxing to keep my eyelids open and type. I have a cold, thinking to myself it cannot be COVID. That evening my temperature rose to 101; I reluctantly scheduled an appointment for testing the next morning.

I am tough. My entire life I have been the strong girl, the one who can grin and bear it. I pride myself on pushing through uncomfortable situations. A rugby player and weightlifter, I served in the United States Air Force. A single mom attending college, while working two jobs. I can push through anything. I am resilient. COVID didn’t take notice of this.

The next morning, barely getting out of bed, I drag myself to the bathroom. Brushing my teeth, I cannot taste the toothpaste. The minty fresh flavor is absent. Later that evening my results are positive. I am finally convinced I have contracted COVID-19. Exhausted like you wouldn’t believe, no amount of sleep could make up for it. Muscle cramps ensure I do not stay asleep long. Headaches guarantee I cannot concentrate on anything meaningful to make my awake hours productive. It is lonely sitting in a bedroom alone, fighting to stay awake and forcing myself to eat tasteless food. This is what I must do, to protect my family and maintain what strength I have left.

Every phone call, email, and text asking how I am doing, I feel forced to say, “I’m okay!”. What else do you say in a situation like this? I can barely make it to the bathroom without passing out, but I cannot tell them this. Walking outside to get fresh air is all I crave, yet by week two I cannot make it 50 yards before I need to sit down. My heart races, beating out of my chest; nominal activities such as showering takes my breath away. I cannot return as a surgical resident when my oxygen saturation drops into the 80s walking outside.

Convinced to visit the ER, I reluctantly go. Seeing the consolidations scattered about the lungs on CT, MY lungs, was appalling. COVID pneumonia it is. How can this happen to ME? I am young, strong, and healthy, remember? Maintaining oxygen saturation in the 90s while in bed, I go home feeling crushed. Each day I decide to fight. Expanding my lung capacity and building endurance becomes a job, a mission. Using the incentive spirometer, my inspiratory lung capacity is 1/3 a female of my height and age. I practice inhaling until my lungs burn with such intensity, I am forced to take a break. Walking outside slowly and methodically every day, stopping for air when the pulse oximeter announces my heart rate is over 130 or oxygen saturation below 88%.

By week four, I can make it around the block with oxygen saturations staying in the 90s, so I return to work in the intensive care unit treating COVID-19 patients, of all places. I experience first-hand what my fate might have been, had I not been so lucky. Code blue, again. I start compressions knowing it is a futile activity we must engage in. This virus devastated this person’s heart, lungs, kidneys, and entire vascular system despite maxing out every medication we have to offer their unrested body. Words cannot describe the heartache and bleakness.

Three months later my heart races. I cannot walk upstairs without it pounding as a band of tightness restricts my breathing. A day of operating is twice as taxing as it was prior to this virus sabotaging my body. I am not yet cleared to weight lift or run as I previously enjoyed. I LOOK fine. I go about my daily activities the best I can, knowing my body is not the force it once was. Each night when I lay down coughing, I have a reminder of what this crude virus left me. My tenacity and fortitude will not let me settle. I will continue to fight. COVID did not win.

Dr. Sara Parmiter is a general surgery resident in Annapolis, Maryland. A non-traditional medical student who was in the United States Air Force. She was also a licensed physical therapy assistant while obtaining pre-med requirements and raising her daughter. She is now married with three dogs and enjoys cooking, hiking, and exercising when she is not at the hospital. You can follow her on Instagram @barbells_and_scalpels 

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

2 Replies to “When a Surgery Resident Gets COVID Pneumonia”

  1. Ah yes Sara, I know that of which you speak. Fevers for 6 days, so weak it was a struggle to stand up on a couple of those days over a three week period. Incessant cough that blew out a vocal cord. By week three I forced myself to “workout” Using 3 lb weights one set of 10 single arm rows required a 10 min rest in supine. Then repeat. I normally can single arm row 85 lbs for 10 reps. Oh yes the fatigue was like nothing I ever experienced in my life. My wife, my brother and my mother all infected. Thought we would lose my mom. Declined hospital care for that would be a death sentence. Home o2, ABX, seraquel for sleeping and 5 weeks later she is turning the corner. Myself and my siblings taking turns along with in home care taking shifts and now finally she is off o2, walking again and stamina slowly improving and energy returning. Lots of prayer surrounded all concerned and I mean several groups lifting us up. Prayer works John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me will bear much fruit. APART FROM ME YOU CAN DO NOTHING.” Not even take a breath on an incentive spirometer!

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