Last spring was memorable, and I was feeling anxious as I squeezed into my chair at a day-long medical conference in a local hotel. My sister and brother-in-law were coming to stay with us for a week and I felt unprepared. There must be over 400 people stuffed in this conference hall, I thought, as I scanned the packed house. We were welcomed. The crowd quieted. Someone sneezed.
Company arrived on March 4, 2020, and we all had a wonderful time until the next day when our kitchen drainpipe collapsed, and we could not use the kitchen sink or dishwasher. We washed dishes and worried about the dark virus rumblings for the next three days and panicked for the following three days. After our guests left a week later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, travel bans were announced, and the world oil market collapsed. The world slowed. We had to stop to catch our breath. The dire wolf was at the door.
One year later, over 500,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Jobs have been lost, businesses have closed, and Americans are discovering a greater level of grief and loss. We have all been touched by the pandemic and each of us has been affected differently. Our coping skills are shot. As Cliff Young, president of market research firm Ipsos said, “People remember the start but there is no clarity on the finish. Right now, there is just murkiness.” The anxiety, detachment and pain of the year has been magnified by a great disorientation of time and routine. As Mike Allen of Axios recently wrote, “Measured in death, loss, isolation and financial ruin, this year felt like an eternity. Measured from the declaration of a pandemic to 60 million vaccinated, the year has been an instant.
Where do we go from here? There are hopeful signs. We can get better by not putting off medical appointments. More evidence tells us postponing medical appointments is a greater threat than the chance of catching COVID-19 at the doctor’s office. Keep your cancer screenings because early-stage diagnosis gives you a better chance for successful treatment. Any red-flag symptoms for heart disease should be checked out immediately.
The cover story in the latest issue of Cardiology Today states that COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease are inextricably linked, and 655,000 patients die from heart disease every year. Do your follow-ups for chronic disease. This is especially important for patients with heart failure, chronic lung and kidney disease, or diabetes.
Finally, manage your mental health. The pandemic has created a huge strain on those suffering from mental health problems. I asked a local Maricopa physician about the decline in mental and emotional wellbeing. “I’m seeing patients who have been cooped up for months with medical issues that have multiplied,” she told me. “The layers of pandemic trauma we’ve experienced has left us all grieving in some way.” I asked her what advice she offers her patients. “Healing starts with small steps. Get outside and take more walks, focus on your personal and family health, and don’t let fear ruin your health.”
We have all been profoundly affected by our collective trauma over the past year, and we will need to help each other heal collectively. Resilience is hard. “Attempting to survive COVID-19 is a physical and mental stressor on our bodies and our psyches,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu.
Take your first small step toward recovery today. Work through your emotions and be honest about your fears. Be mindful about your health every day. Start a healthy habit. Make the medical or dental appointment you have been putting off. Practice compassion. Call that family member you have been worried about. Check up on your neighbor. If we all work on these steps, perhaps we will be as fortunate as 103-year-old Emile Hopner, who survived the 1918 pandemic and the Holocaust. This is what he said after receiving his first vaccination in New York City in March:
“I thank God every day that at 103 I feel still in good shape because my wife takes care of me all the way. She is wonderful. Piece of gold.”
Mike Stoeckmann is a medical project coordinator who has been working in community-based health care for the past 20 years.