COVID-19 is no respecter

By Henrylito D. Tacio

“Whenever you are a patient, forget you are a doctor, behave like a patient.”

Those were the words of Dr. Ahmed Ismail, an Egyptian doctor based in Cairo whose expertise is in the field of internal medicine and rheumatology. His true-to-life story, as a survivor of the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), was shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its website.

It all started in March when a friend called him about his sick mother-in-law.  He didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary.  He agreed to make a home visit to check on the woman, who had a fever on and off for days.

When got to the place, he found that the woman was asthmatic and had bronchitis.  He never took any precautions as he didn’t notice anything that was very alarming.  “Everything seemed all right,” he thought.

After prescribing some medication to the patient, he told the woman’s family – none of whom were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms – that she should go directly to a testing hospital if she started to experience dry cough or shortness of breath.

A few days later, Dr. Ismail learned that the patient suffered from those tell-tale symptoms.  She went to the hospital the doctor had specified, where a test confirmed that indeed she had COVID-19.  It was his friend who told him about the result.

Looking back, Dr. Ismail thought he might be infected, too.  “I didn’t protect myself,” he says, adding that he hadn’t worn gloves or a mask while visiting the woman.  “I didn’t see it coming,” he says ruefully.

He did what he was ought to do.  He had to self-isolate himself and tell everyone that he worked with.  He immediately began calling the hospitals where he is a consultant.  “I can’t handle the thought I might infect my patients,” he says.  “I can handle the opposite, because that’s my job.  But I was worried about my patients.”

On the same day that he informed the hospital where he was working, Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population contacted him with guidance for home isolation precautions.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Five days after visiting the patient, Dr. Ismail started to have a mild sore throat with fever.  “I am asthmatic, so at this time of the year, I typically cough,” he says.  “Usually, I wouldn’t pay attention, but I knew I had had contact with an infected patient.”

Immediately, he went to the fever hospital to get tested, and a day later he received a positive result.

Dr. Ismail went to the isolation hospital designated for COVID-19 patients in Cairo, where he stayed for several days.  As a doctor, he wanted to protect staff, and told them he would record his own vitals.

At first, being totally alone in a hospital was manageable.  His symptoms were mild.  “I had two books and the internet,” he says.  “I also passed the time praying and on video calls with my wife and kids.”

But as the days turned into a week, it was becoming harder for him.  “Quarantined in a single room, with no one coming to me, I was talking to no one and going ‘insane,’” he says.  “The last couple of days were like hell to me.

“I think it was a mistake to paly hero and ask them not to check on me,” he continues.  “This is another lesson I’ve learned.  They should treat me like a patient, and I should behave like a patient.”

Finally, Dr. Ismail tested negative twice for COVID-19 and could leave the hospital.  It was such a relief that he would finally go home.  After more precautionary self-quarantine in his own home, he knew he had something precious to offer future COVID-19 sufferers: his blood.

Research into plasma-based treatment for COVID-19 is still in infancy, with no treatment confirmed effective yet by the United Nations health agency.  But Dr. Ismail wanted to contribute to the growing number of scientific studies about what might work to help people with COVID-19 virus.

So, Dr. Ismail donated his plasma.  “It took 45 minutes and it doesn’t hurt at all,” he says.  “It’s an easy procedure.  I did it while drinking my coffee.”

Now fully recovered, he wants to share the lessons he’s learned with healthcare workers facing the disease.  Aside from behaving like a patient even if you’re a doctor, he urges frontliners never forget personal protective gear like masks and gloves.

“Make sure to be protected while dealing with patients,” Dr. Ismail reminds.  “Be cautious with every single patient you are seeing.  Don’t think it’s far away.  You can always be infected.”

COVID-19 is no respecter.  It spares no one – not even doctors.  No one can escape from it: rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, famous or notorious, fat or thin.  This must be the reason why that at the end of the 73 rd World Health Assembly – its first ever to be held virtually – delegates adopted a landmark to bring the world together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Egyptian doctor (WHO)

The resolution, co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, was adopted by consensus.  It calls for the intensification of efforts to control the pandemic, and for equitable access to and fair distribution of all essential health technologies and products to combat the virus.

In his closing remarks, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated the sad reality.

“COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his closing remarks.  “It has robbed us of lives and livelihoods; it has shaken the foundations of our world; it threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation.  But it’s also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”

People from all over the world may speak different languages but they have one thing in common: DNA.

“We may adhere to different faiths, but we share the same aspirations for a peaceful and harmonious world,” Dr. Tedros reminded. “From east to west, north to south, everybody wants peace, development and health – nothing else, that’s what human beings want, that’s what humanity wants.”

COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China in December last year.  Then, the virus travelled across the world through Europe, the Americas and beyond in space of a few weeks.  “It gave us proof, if one was ever needed, of how tightly interconnected we all are,” wrote David Nabarro and Joe Colombano in a news dispatch released by Inter Press Service.

Nabarro is WHO special envoy on COVID-19 while Colombano is an economist.  “Not only are our globalized economies interdependent, but also we ourselves are one with the environment around us, and with one another,” they wrote.  “We are one humankind sharing one planet.”

People seem to forget that “as we carelessly revert to misguiding differences between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” For one, there is a distinction between rich and poor countries, or as economists put it, between advanced economies and developed countries.

But “in the face of COVID-19, the only difference that matters is if we are sick or healthy,” the two experts wrote. “Other than that, we are all the same, regardless of economic status or geographic location.”

Today, as the world is grappling with COVID-19, the international community has an opportunity of forging a common future.

“Dark and difficult days may lie ahead, but guided by science, together we will overcome,” Dr. Tedros said in his closing remarks.  “Let hope be the antidote to fear.  Let solidarity be the antidote to division.  Let our shared humanity be antidote to our shared threat. Now, more than ever.” – ###

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