In April, Dr. Kevin Carr, a hospitalist at Adfinitas Health, wasn’t surprised he was feeling a little worn out. The Washington County hospital where he worked hadn’t been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis—only around five to seven COVID-19 patients had presented by mid-April. But doctors and medical staff were taking on more shifts to respond to the increased workload brought on by the pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel worn out taking on
more night shifts?
A Marine combat veteran, Kevin says his position as a hospitalist keeps him with “one foot in the ER.” When patients are admitted through the emergency room, they generally land in Kevin’s care. His fatigue, he thought, resulted from the increased disruption to his circadian rhythms. But in the back of his mind, the specter of COVID-19 loomed. His hospital’s mandatory safety gear was in short supply, and his hospital had started requiring staff to reuse and re-wear it.
Then, joint pain and skin sensitivity crept up into his consciousness. Kevin got himself tested at his hospital’s drive-up site. Because he recognized his symptoms, he quarantined at home in his family’s basement. At the time, he says, “tests were only 70 percent accurate,” so when his came back negative, he continued quarantining.
How do businesses reopen? Read: 6 Questions with Mike Haynie
The patient perspective
Kevin, who lives in Lutherville with his wife, Elizabeth, an oncology nurse, and their four children, listened to the noise of his family through the ceiling in the basement as his illness kicked into its next gear. Kevin lost his sense of taste. His fever spiked. He was nauseated and had no appetite. After a few days, it became clear to him he was becoming dehydrated from fever and vomiting.
He drove up to GBMC’s emergency room. This test returned the answer he’d already surmised: He’d contracted COVID-19.
“I was worried,” says Elizabeth. She couldn’t visit Kevin at the hospital and wasn’t getting all the information she wanted from him. She knew he wasn’t sleeping, his labwork had returned “all kinds of crazy,” and his liver and kidney enzymes were “way off.” Nevertheless, she says, she was “keeping it all together.”
All of “it” included: monitoring Kevin’s condition from a safe distance, keeping the kids quarantined and focused on their schoolwork, arranging for grocery delivery, and keeping the kids’ and her own fears in check. This proved mostly, but not all, possible. When Kevin left for the hospital “the kids asked if he died,” she remembers.
In the hospital, Kevin adjusted to the role-reversal from doctor to patient. “I considered myself sensitive with regard to what patients go through,” he says. But he received a firsthand education on a patient’s experience. Of being hospitalized in general, he notes wryly: “I don’t recommend it.” He didn’t enjoy “being awakened every few hours to get enzymes checked” and found “clinical lighting is not conducive to sleep.” All the “little things you never noticed as a doctor,” Kevin says, “well, I definitely take them more under consideration for my patients now.”
What a spouse sees
Elizabeth, says Kevin, was “a rock” at home during his hospitalization. But Elizabeth says even rocks crack. “I woke up every morning with a knot in my stomach,” she remembers. By evening, the cracks showed. Elizabeth allowed herself a Skype or Zoom-based cry in her room with her mom and sister–both of whom live in Elizabeth’s native Nova Scotia, Canada–over “a big glass of wine.”
As both a wife and a fellow medical professional, Elizabeth felt frustrated not knowing the details of Kevin’s condition. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know until he’d been in the hospital for four days,” she says. Kevin wasn’t withholding his abnormal bloodwork and kidney issues to keep Elizabeth from worrying, he says. He was simply too sick to communicate very well during the ordeal.
After five days, Kevin made enough progress to return to the basement. But even after his quarantine ended, some symptoms lingered and may never go away. “This virus,” he says, “does not like to let you go.” Even today, his kidneys haven’t fully recovered, and he returned to work at the hospital knowing that although he has antibodies, “there’s no guarantee how long, or even if, I have immunity.”
It ain’t over yet
A battle with COVID-19 wasn’t all 2020 had in store for the Carr family. In the wake of Kevin’s illness, George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police worsened the country’s stress and hit close to home. Kevin is Black. “I’m the descendant of enslaved Africans, as well as being a direct descendant of a Mayflower passenger,” he says. Elizabeth is white, and their children are biracial. Elizabeth believes their eldest daughter has been hardest hit “coming to terms with her identity,” while at the same time processing her father’s illness. But they all, Elizabeth says, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Every time he coughs. Every time he’s tired coming home from work, I’m hyper aware,” she says. The family is careful, but Elizabeth is unsure if their efforts are enough to keep the monster out of the house.
A doctor’s advice
“There’s evidence masks reduce the spread,” Kevin says. “We don’t know everything about this disease, we do know that wearing masks reduces the risk.” And although “Maryland has done a great job flattening the curve,” not everyone Kevin encounters wears a mask.
“People can turn off the news and think, ‘This doesn’t really affect us,’ or ‘We can disconnect from this if we want to,’ but this is a pandemic. It’s not a political issue,” he says. “Our ancestors gave their lives for our freedoms, and we’re arguing over whether it’s too much to ask to wear a mask to protect our fellow citizens. We inherited our freedoms so easily, and some of us have never really been stress-tested in this way.” Currently, Kevin says, “we’re failing that test.”
Nevertheless, he remains hopeful the country will learn the lessons that 2020 continues to dispense. “Treat your fellow man like you treat yourself,” he says. “We can do this. We can all do this.”