A Family Affair: I was VUMC’s first employee with COVID and one of the physicians tasked with developing a vaccine
It was a Tuesday morning in early March when the frantic, worldwide race for a COVID-19 vaccine suddenly became not only a professional matter for me, but also a personal one.
Stores and restaurants were just beginning to shutter their doors, and statewide, Tennessee had only a handful of cases. Universal masking was not a widespread practice, and while we had already begun to understand the general makeup of the virus, we still knew little about what exactly propels its spread and how it manifests in different populations.
My wife and I awoke that morning feeling a little strange. I had tightness in my chest and a slight headache, but no fever or flu-like symptoms, so I came to work as usual. Given my uncertainty over what was happening, I isolated myself in my office and called Vanderbilt’s newly established COVID hotline to err on the side of caution. The recommendation was to monitor closely for changes in symptoms.
Around lunchtime, my wife developed fever. Given her progression of symptoms, I decided to leave work and visit a Vanderbilt walk-in clinic for COVID-19 testing.
That night, I received a call: I was the first Vanderbilt University Medical Center employee to test positive for the novel coronavirus.
For the first week, the illness was mild and felt very similar to influenza, which I had experienced in 2009 prior to the novel swine flu vaccine becoming available. Despite muscle aches, cough and persistent fever, we were able to spend time together as a family, watching movies and playing an epic game of Monopoly.
Around day seven, when I finally began feeling a bit better and thought I might be on the mend, a colleague wisely warned me that the second week could be worse than the first. Indeed, I developed viral pneumonia with high fever, evidenced by a worsening cough and more difficulty breathing. My fever continued for 16 days. The days were often punctuated with dread for the evening when fever, cough and shortness of breath would consistently worsen.
Thankfully, my wife did not have the same experience, and she began feeling better toward the end of the first week (though her loss of smell took longer to resolve). Our three children — a sophomore in college, a junior in high school and a third grader — also became symptomatic with the virus, though their experiences looked very different from mine, ranging from a viral rash to gastrointestinal symptoms to a mild upper respiratory infection.
Our family illustrates the wide spectrum of disease caused by the virus. We also highlight the likely underreporting of true cases. Due to the availability of testing at the time, only my wife and I had confirmatory testing despite disease in our children and subsequent confirmation in one of them by antibody testing.
As an infectious diseases specialist, the illness continues to fascinate me. However, as a husband and father, there were moments of fear amidst the uncertainty. In the end, I am thankful that the experience somewhat demystified the illness (though I wish I could have achieved the same result with a slightly milder presentation). The illness also served as an opportunity, as I participated in multiple research studies on campus, providing blood and immune cells to brilliant investigators who are studying the illness.
When I returned to campus after nearly four weeks, our team began enrolling hospitalized patients in clinical trials of the drugs remdesivir and baricitinib as potential COVID-19 treatments. Patients were often reassured, particularly early in the pandemic, to talk with someone who understood their fears, had personally experienced the virus and who was now on the other side.
As the best ways to protect oneself and others have been heavily debated and messages have been mixed, my takeaway is that we should all be doing what we can to slow the spread of this virus and to care for one another as best we can. While it is true that greater than 95% of individuals with COVID-19 do not require hospitalization and that the case fatality rate is undoubtedly higher than the infection fatality rate, COVID-19 is a formidable foe that disproportionally affects many in our community. Therefore, much like we do with influenza and influenza vaccination, we do well to take measures to not only protect ourselves from illness, but to reduce the likelihood of sharing the virus with others.
While we don’t yet have a vaccine for COVID-19, we recognize that there are other meaningful things we can do: washing hands, watching our distance and wearing masks when keeping a distance is not possible. These methods appear to be reasonable and, by every account, effective responses to this global pandemic.
Few among us are particularly fond of our newfound restrictions. Personally, I am all too ready to attend a church full of non-masked congregants, to shake hands with a newly introduced colleague and to yell vigorously for the Vanderbilt basketball team inside a packed Memorial Gym. To get there, we need steady resolve to care for one another in proven and yet unproven ways. To the extent that we can do that, we will not only endure the pandemic, but thrive as a result.