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I Treated COVID Patients -- Then I Became One. It Was a Terrifying Experience.

David Burkard
December 23, 2020

By David Burkard, MD as told to Jennifer Clopton

As an emergency medicine doctor, I’d gotten very accustomed to treating COVID-19 patients over the past several months. But becoming a COVID patient myself really flipped the tables on me. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Working on the front lines of this pandemic was already heartbreaking. I’ve had to hold far too many hands of people who are dying and call way too many relatives so they can say goodbye to their loved one -- something I’d never done with this regularity before the pandemic. Even so, I wasn’t in fear of getting COVID-19 myself. I’m 28, have no underlying conditions, am in good shape, and exercise regularly. My biggest concern, frankly, was that I might unknowingly get the virus and pass it on to my immunocompromised mom or an older patient. I was never very concerned that it would be bad for me if I got it.

Then the symptoms started.

I woke up with a fever and a cough one morning, and I knew right away that it was COVID. It was pretty rough from the start. I had a fever that would not drop below 104 degrees, even though I was taking my maximum dose of ibuprofen and acetaminophen around the clock. My fatigue was so bad that I couldn’t even play Xbox or watch TV. I was having a hard time sleeping because of the body aches. In the beginning, it felt like a terrible flu.

On day 5, I seemed to turn a corner, and I started to think I was going to put this past me. But then on day 6, I woke up struggling to breathe. I couldn’t walk more than 10 steps without light gasping and an element of anxiety came with that. I was still slightly reassured, given my age and good health, that I was going to be OK. But over the next 2 days it continued to worsen, and I wasn’t so sure.

On day 8, my oxygen levels dropped to 82, which is a marker of great concern. I knew I needed to get to the hospital. Instead of bounding into the ER with tons of energy and a positive attitude like I typically do, I walked in at that point looking and feeling terrible and struggling to breathe. 

I was admitted to the COVID floor. I was put on steroids, which made me emotional. You also feel so alone. The nurses were great and took wonderful care of me, but I just wanted people who I love by my side. It’s so hard not being able to have that support. I was given convalescent plasma and an antiviral, and in time I started to get better. When I found out I was going home after 3 days, I was so relieved and happy. I was finally able to relax, knowing I was going to be OK. It took me another week before I started to feel like myself again, though. All told, I battled COVID for 3 weeks.

I’m back in the ER working these days. At the time of my return, we were seeing more people testing positive for this virus than at any other point in the pandemic. I’m sharing my story in the hopes of convincing people to change their behavior and do whatever they need to do to stay out of the hospital with a case of COVID.

My experience was real and it was scary, and I don't want anyone else to have to go through that. Beyond that, our hospitals are filling up fast these days, and there’s no guarantee that a hospital bed will be available for you or your loved one if you need it. That is the thought that keeps me up at night because when I think back to what it felt like when I was struggling to breathe and walked into my own ER at the worst point in my illness, I literally can’t imagine what would have happened if they were too full to help me. What would I have done? Where would I have gone as I gasped for breath?

I don’t want people coming to the doors of our nation’s hospitals and being turned away because there are no more beds or staff to help them. I don’t want that to happen to you. So my message is this: Take this virus seriously, whatever that means in your life. If you’re wondering about gathering inside with friends and family for the holidays or over the long winter, reconsider. If you’re not regularly wearing a mask, commit to doing so anytime you are interacting inside or outside with someone who doesn’t live in your home. If you or someone else in your house gets sick or exposed, stay home and quarantine. These things are hard. I get it. Having COVID or watching a loved one struggle through it is far worse.

This virus is all around us, and it is real. If I, a healthy 28-year-old, can get knocked down like I did, anybody can. If people need to continue to hear stories like mine to understand that this really can affect anyone, then I'll keep telling my story. If you need to hear from a doctor that we are worried that there are so many patients in need of our help that soon we might not have enough beds to take care of them all, I’m telling you that now too. Please listen and take care of yourself and your loved ones. Lives are literally at stake.

David Burkard, MD is an emergency medicine physician at Spectrum Health Systems in Grand Rapids, MI. He is also a proud University of Michigan alumni, a graduate of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, an avid runner, a Young Life leader, volleyball coach, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Warner Camp in South Haven, MI.




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