From treating COVID-19 to having it

By The Health News Team | June 17, 2020
Eat your veggies, boost your immune system

Dr. Paul Abou, chief of staff at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, gives credit for his recovery from COVID-19 to his ICU care team, including (left) Michelle Coleman, RN, and Kelly Tyler, RN, BSN.

“It’s all a blur, but I vividly remember when Emergency Medical Services arrived at my house to take me to the ER and thinking that I may never return home,” recalls Dr. Paul Abou, an internal medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

It was on that day, March 30, that Dr. Abou went from being a doctor who treats patients with COVID-19 to experiencing life on the other side as a patient with COVID-19.

A few weeks prior, he noticed that he didn’t feel like himself. He chalked it up to fatigue from a busy schedule of caring for patients. When his temperature soared to 103° F, he suspected COVID-19. The next day, lab results confirmed that he had it.

The East San Diego County resident experienced all of the typical symptoms associated with COVID-19, including constant chills, high fevers, back and muscle aches, a cough and shortness of breath. “I couldn’t get comfortable no matter what position I was in. My sense of taste and smell were altered so that even water tasted awful. I couldn’t tolerate anything,” he says.

Dr. Abou tried managing his symptoms at home. He went on supplemental oxygen therapy for a week; however, it wasn’t enough to restore his oxygen to normal levels. When his wife also started to have COVID-19 symptoms, they isolated themselves in separate rooms of the house. His condition didn’t improve, and with some nudging from his colleagues, he realized he needed to be admitted to the hospital.

“Initially I came to the ER, but in the blink of an eye, I found myself in the intensive care unit (ICU),” says Dr. Abou. “I realized the gravity of my illness when I saw the expressions on the faces of the nurses in the ER and ICU. Even under the masks, they couldn’t hide their concern.”

A turning point
His breathing ability continued to decline to a point where his care team considered putting him on a ventilator. Fortunately, with the use of a BiPap machine — a wearable device that delivers pressurized air to the lungs — his condition began to improve over the next few days.

As with many severe cases of COVID-19, Dr. Abou’s road to recovery was slow and challenging. Tasks as simple as sitting on the edge of the bed caused significant shortness of breath. Respiratory therapists in the Sharp Grossmont ICU played a key role in the recovery of his lung function, which is essential for COVID-19 patients with pneumonia.

It was touch and go for some time. Eventually he regained his ability to breathe on his own, eliminating the need to be on a ventilator.

During that time, Dr. Abou lost his appetite and nothing appealed to him. “My dietitian called my wife to find out what kind of food I like, thinking that may help,” he says. Oddly, the only thing he could tolerate were eggs and milk in the morning. It would be another five weeks before he would regain his appetite.

He stayed in the ICU for a week and was well enough to be sent home directly from critical care rather than moving to one of the hospital’s progressive care units (PCUs). Following his return home, he still required oxygen for a couple of weeks.

Saviors and angels
Reflecting on his time as an ICU patient, Dr. Abou says he had to give up control to his caregivers. “I handed my life to the nurses and doctors and entrusted my care to them for a good reason. Maybe I was just too sick to think otherwise,” he says.

He credits his entire care team for his recovery, including the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, dietitians, phlebotomists and radiology technicians. But it’s the nurses in the ER and medical intensive care unit (MICU) who stand out in his mind. They attend to patients around the clock, put on and remove personal protective equipment (PPE) each time they enter and leave a patient’s room, and place themselves at the greatest risk of exposure.

From Dr. Abou’s perspective as a patient, his healing and recovery were not only a result of the clinical care he received, but also the emotional support. He recalls how colleagues would stop by outside his room and give him a thumbs-up through the window to encourage him.

“The nurses held my hand, they cried with me and they reassured me,” he says. “In retrospect I know how sick I was, but I didn’t realize it at the time. It made a difference to know that I had a whole team dedicated to my well-being. They were my saviors and angels.”

A wake-up call
When Dr. Abou left the hospital, he went home and recuperated for a month. His muscles had atrophied to the point where even climbing the stairs was a chore. With the motivation to return to his normal health and a great deal of patience, he was able to regain his strength through dedication to daily exercise.

He returned to work on April 30 to resume his duties as a hospitalist and the hospital’s chief of staff with a renewed perspective on life. As he is now feeling much better, he doesn’t take his health for granted.

“Having COVID-19 was a wake-up call for me, as I experienced the severity of the disease and how much it can impact both an individual and their family,” he says.

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