It feels like COVID is closing in


Like so many of you, I have weathered COVID-19 for the last almost 2 years. We’ve dealt with anxiety in our patients and ourselves, ever conflicting directives over masks, and uncertainty and hope over vaccinations.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

In the beginning, it seemed elsewhere. Wuhan, China, the state of Washington, New York City.

In the beginning, I awoke with rising anxiety every morning at 4 a.m.

Now, it is part of life. We know how to do this.

I work in a D.C. hospital that takes care of COVID-19 patients. I don’t intubate or come into direct contact with patients’ secretions.

I felt lucky.

Last summer, I felt relief, after being fully vaccinated. We thought we were almost over it. But the numbers abroad and in the United States keep rising.

We have developed protocols. We test every patient for COVID-19 before admitting them to psychiatry, which is now routine. COVID-19–positive patients with suicidal ideation go to our medicine-psychiatric unit. We are single-room occupancy. No visitors.

Now, it feels like COVID is closing in. Lots of my patients on consultation-liaison psychiatry had COVID-19 or do now. The number of patients with long COVID is increasing. My elderly mother-in-law picked it up from a hospital. My young, healthy adult son got it but is now doing relatively OK. We will see if his ADHD worsens.

I received contact tracing recently for going into a patient room with contact precautions. I had put on the gown and gloves, but did I wear my goggles? I keep them on my forehead but could not remember if I had slipped them over my eyes.

I get tested weekly. My nose runs inside my mask. I sneeze. Is this COVID?

Of course, I am vaccinated with a booster shot. But breakthrough infections occur.

I am lucky, I keep reminding myself. I have a job and income and good PPE.

So, we are learning how to manage this disease. But it still closes in. My brain screams: “I do not want to catch this disease. I do not want to get sick. I do not want to get long COVID.”

“Calm down, Cam,” I tell myself. “You can do this!” I have learned how to do all the PPE, including tying the plastic ties along the backs of the plastic gowns.

All psychiatry meetings are virtual now. I cannot do virtual with enthusiasm. I say I will, but then do not log on. I miss the camaraderie.

All appointments are mainly telehealth. That has its pros and cons.

So bottom line – I will keep keeping on.

But I really want others to get vaccinated and wear masks. More than that, how can we as a psychiatric community get us through this pandemic? How can we support each other and our patients?

Here are a few suggestions, some of which I have made before:

  • Focus on what we can control, especially exercise and sleep. Walk during times when the sun is shining. Rake the gorgeous autumn yellow and orange leaves.
  • Give small (or large) gifts of kindness to others. Give to food banks, provide large tips to those who bring you takeout, help out at an animal shelter.
  • Talk through established media about self-care and therapy for anxiety and depression.
  • Clean out your closets. Give clothes to Afghan refugees.
  • Read good books about trying times – such as World War II and the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Take care of veterans and the elderly and homeless.
  • Take care of yourself and your family.

Dr. Ritchie is chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington Hospital Center. She has no conflicts of interest.

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