Flashbacks of Isolation in the ICU Amidst COVID-19
BY Erin Sullivan
PUBLISHED March 31, 2020
Quarantine, social distancing and self-isolation. For many, these phrases have just entered their vocabulary, but for patients with cancer and survivors, these are no strange concepts.
It has been nearly eight years since I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APML), a rare form of leukemia, a week after graduating high school. While there are many aspects of my treatment that I don’t remember (thanks chemo brain), I will never forget what it was like to be stuck at home or in the hospital while all my friends went off to college. For weeks my immune system was so weakened I wasn’t even allowed to leave my own hospital room. I was so tired of the isolation; I began to look forward to the grueling hours of physical therapy where I had to learn how to re-walk because my muscles had become so weak. In the minutes leading up to these sessions, I gladly put on my face mask, because it meant I was able to leave my room, albeit I had to stay in the oncology wing hallways. At least it was still a change in scenery. As the months went on, I slowly began to gain my freedom back, only to be met with a case of severe pneumonia. Twice.
Watching the news these past weeks has been incredibly hard. When I first heard them describing the more severe symptoms of COVID-19, I immediately had flashbacks to the weeks I spent in the ICU, unable to breathe on my own. It’s an experience I hope to never have again.
This past February I celebrated a huge milestone, five years cancer-free. However, that celebration was tainted with a higher level of anxiety than normal. In the back of my mind, as I am sure is in the back of many survivors’ minds, is always the thought, “What if my cancer relapses?”. But this year, I now have another thought, “What if after all I went through to survive, I get taken out by a virus?”.
These are very scary times we are living in, especially for those with compromised immune systems. Fortunately, I am far enough into my survivorship that my immune system is much stronger than it was just five years ago. For the many people who are not as fortunate, I am doing my part in following government guidelines to the best of my abilities to slow the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.
I follow these guidelines for patients with cancer who are currently in treatment. I do it for the families staying at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, where I currently work as a social worker and for their children who are receiving active treatment at local hospitals. And I do it for my own family members and loved ones.
For those of you who are not taking this global pandemic seriously and disregarding guidelines, I beg you to stop. From someone who had to practice social distancing and isolation for half a year, I promise you can get through it for the next few weeks.