Medical Technology

COVID-19 and the Immunocompromised Physician

Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Working feverishly to complete the myriad patient notes accumulated throughout a hectic day, my phone vibrated – alerting me to a number that, over the past several years, has wrought uncertainty, grief, and overwhelming relief. Answering hesitantly, I listened to my physician’s pharmacist inform me of unexpected and alarming news.

Since COVID-19 was first identified more than 1 year ago, more than 770,000 people have died in the United States. In the wake of those losses, countless grieve while attempting to navigate a future without their loved ones. Meanwhile, scientists worked feverishly to combat a pandemic relentless in contagion. As health care professionals, we work tirelessly against the sharpened scythe of death, toiling day after day without an identifiable end. All the while, advocacy has prevailed as the need for personal protective equipment, improved ventilation systems, sanitization measures, and other mitigation measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing, echoed swiftly across the nation and around the world.

But, as the months have progressed, and life has seemingly transitioned toward a parallel version of reality, subsections of communities have grown restless. Several nontherapeutic, ineffective, and falsely touted regimens have been promoted. Amid the chaos of misinformation, most medical professionals have sought support from respected journals and infectious disease experts to filter out jargon and piece together scientifically sound protocols. Although many lives have prevailed by way of those advancements, mixed messages about interventions have emerged – and in many quarters across the country, anger, resistance, and outright refusal have prevailed.

Yet, we – the medical community – have forged ever onward as the cases continued and the death toll steadily climbed. In many cases, physicians who are years removed from critical care training have been thrust into COVID units, while residents have shifted toward working outside of their chosen specialty. Outpatient offices have closed, salaries have been cut, and furloughs have loomed as days fade into months. Beset with exhaustion and uncertainty, sacrifice has become a common thread that intrinsically united us against an unrelenting foe.

Most people continued navigating the many changes and made concerted efforts to mimic our prepandemic lives. Working from home in makeshift offices, dusting off math skills to assist children through the doldrums of distance learning, and mastering various audiovisual platforms, we reinforced social bonds and forged new connections echoing the hallmark resilience reminiscent of our shared distant ancestry.

As of this writing, thanks to our work – and that of scientists and policymakers – about 69% of Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, and vaccines are widely available to children 5 and older. But it has been disheartening to watch misinformation about vaccine research and development propagated by political figures, social media, and laypeople.

Processing the Phone Call

While listening to my physician’s pharmacist, I slowed my breaths in an effort to find calm. Years of navigating the American health care industry had left me both equipped and ill-prepared for the unexpected. I listened intently to the pharmacist’s words while staring blankly at a computer screen – uncertain of what had felt so assured not 10 minutes earlier.

That’s when I got the news. The intravenous medication that aided in my stabilization had suffered a critical shortage because of its successful use in the treatment of patients with COVID-19 pneumonia – patients who, in a majority of cases, had likely refused the vaccines. As result, the medication that had enabled my return to work, active engagement in nonwork pursuits, and most importantly, equipped my body to thrive despite the damage it had suffered, suddenly vanished.

Gently placing my phone on the desk, my heart beat rapidly as tears steadily streamed down my face. Staring blankly ahead, my hands gradually balled into fists as I let out a sound of fear, agony, and uncertainty. Screaming at everything and nothing, nausea swelled as panic flooded my body. In that moment, I ruminated on the conversation with the pharmacist. There had been no discussion, no option for me to maintain accessibility to this valuable medicine. Consequently, I felt helpless. Although the same medication, albeit a different mechanism of delivery, was promptly chosen as an adequate substitute, there was no guarantee of it bestowing the same degree of efficacy. So I was terrified, envisioning the progress made over several years as plummeting into an abyss of pain and despair. What are those of us who have chosen medicine as our profession but are immunocompromised expected to make of this?

Over the next several weeks, I diligently adhered to the new regimen and focused on positive mentation. Nevertheless, day by day, the symptoms worsened; eventually, I became bedridden. I tried to gather what little composure remained to reschedule patients and justify the resounding guilt of perceived failure. I remember the sweet and gentle look of my child as I once again could not summon the strength to play pretend. This felt overwhelming. Would I ever go back to work? Would I see my child grow? No amount of pleading or screaming would change the fact that a medical system chose to roll the dice on my health. In a haze of discomfort and betrayal, I wondered how a physician or medical facility could justify removing medication from someone reliant upon it. How do we choose the appropriate allocation of resources when the consequences are potentially catastrophic?

Searching for Context

When a country is founded on the mission of rising as a leading world power built upon the concepts of freedom, basic human rights, and individuality while supporting an infrastructure of capitalism, power, and control, crises – particularly those related to public health – can fan deep divisions. Here in the United States, we have seen misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and bitter indignation fuel the flames of provocation as protests of mask mandates, distance learning, and social distancing were touted as violating the very core upon which the country was established. Frustration, palpable among health care professionals, grew ever greater as the importance of vaccination in quelling virus mutations and decreasing morbidity and mortality were openly disparaged and ignored.

Not only have we watched people refuse the vaccines, but some are ignoring other mitigation measures. So the question becomes: How are we, as health care professionals trying to maintain a therapeutic alliance with those who reject lifesaving practices, expected to process this? Sitting in appointments and attempting interventions without judgment feels impractical and nearly impossible – particularly when the behaviors of these patients have the potential of violating our own health and well-being. How do we remain altruistic in our endeavors when those who seek our care seem callously indifferent to our lives – and to those of our families?

Measuring the Value of Life

Within the fevered haze of this past year, many stories highlighting grim realities have captured the media spotlight. From individuals unable to have emergency evaluations because of facilities being inundated by COVID-19 patients to individuals prematurely discharged, hospital bed shortages, and financial pressures from insurance companies. In reciting the phrase “Primum non noncere,” we physicians are committing to providing fair and competent medical treatment. At times, urgent decisions are necessary but are always made in the best interest of the patient(s). Ultimately, I am left debating how these agonizing weeks served any meaningful purpose. Moreover, when choosing the many over the few, what are the determinant factors? I am left asking: What is the value of a life?

Philosophically, this ethical dilemma is captured succinctly via the “trolley problem,” formulated in 1967 by Philippa Foot, MD. This is how Foot’s formulation unfolds: Close your eyes, and imagine you are inside a trolley careening unhindered down the rumbling tracks. Straight ahead you see five people bound to the tracks in imminent danger of being struck, and on the other side, one person is tied to the tracks. Do you continue the same course – thereby condemning five innocent people to death – or do you make the active decision to switch tracks, therefore consigning the one to their fate? Envision the people what do they look like? How old are they? If the one were a small child or a close friend, would that alter your decision? How does one make such a harrowing choice knowing the irreversible consequences? Depending on your action, this quandary falls within two primary schools of thought: Utilitarianism, which posits that the best action is the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and deontologicalism, which suggests that action is inherently right or wrong regardless of the consequences. Therefore, the decision to save the five is not favored.

However simplistic those scenarios may read, such principles when viewed through different lenses, they form the basis of medical ethics. In effect, every acute decision, every aspect of treatment is predicated upon the principles of nonmaleficence, beneficence, utility, distributive justice, and autonomy. Yet, the manner in which they are applied is highly contingent upon myriad variables. For example, sociopolitical factors, including population size (rural versus urban), economics (impoverished versus wealthy), as well as demographic factors (age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) can highly influence and sometimes unknowingly influence interpretation and allocation of health care resources. This dilemma does not yield easily applicable and universal solutions. Nevertheless, it is paramount to evaluate policies effectively and tediously, particularly those with detrimental ramifications. Likewise, remaining flexible in our willingness to explore alternative solutions and encourage open discord among those with opposing viewpoints is key to instituting individual or institutional change that values the one as it values the many.

After several weeks of acute illness and a variety of short-acting interventions, I received approval to resume intravenous therapy. While the saga has ultimately reached a satisfactory conclusion, I am left with stupefied disbelief toward the people who took a gamble on my health. I am facing a battle between understanding the obligation of medicine to provide ethical and reasonable care without hesitation or judgment versus embittered resentment when faced with those who openly campaign against lifesaving interventions, such as the COVID-19 vaccine. For me, each day and the one that follows is riddled with complicated emotion. Every time I prematurely cease activity out of discomfort and weariness, I worry about my increasingly foreboding workload. In those moments, in that place of questions without answers, I remember that someone somewhere ultimately decided to switch the trolley’s track.

Thomas is a board-certified adult psychiatrist with interests in chronic illness, womens behavioral health, and minority mental health. She currently practices in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I. Thomas has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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