Nearly two weeks ago, Dr. Dave Burkard woke with fatigue, a cough and shortness of breath. The 28-year-old emergency medicine resident knew exactly what it was: COVID-19. After months of living and working through the pandemic, he had somehow caught it. Yet, he was surprised by how sick he became even though he was healthy and active.
“I tried to get up and make a sandwich at my counter and I was just so winded,” Burkard, who works at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “I'm used to like running five or six miles a day and playing volleyball afterwards and then going to work. And now it's like, ‘Well, maybe I'll be able to do a walk around the block today.’"
After he ended up hospitalized for treatment, he posted a message on Facebook about the seriousness of the coronavirus that was shared more than 6,000 times.
“Think about the families who want to be with their loved ones while they’re sick but can’t. Think about how silly it sounds to complain about a mask when there are people literally gasping for air,” he shared. “It is up to all of us to stop the spread of COVID. It does not just affect the old and frail; it affects all of us and we are all at risk for getting sick. Please wear your mask. Do your part to help us stop the spread.”
Mild symptoms worsen in days
For two days, Burkard’s fever wouldn’t break, but then he started improving and feeling closer to his “normal self.” But around day six, things took a turn for the worse.
“I just gradually went downhill, being able to do less and less and literally having to get back into bed and catch my breath,” he explained.
The associate residency program director had sent Burkard a pulse oximeter, a hand-held device that measures the saturation of oxygen carried in a person's red blood cells. His oxygen levels would drop just from sitting in bed.
“When I would get up and walk around, I’d hit the mid-80s,” he said, which is a concerning number. “I took a shower on day eight and put the pulse ox on and I was standing at 82.”
He called his doctor who recommended he head to the emergency department.
“(Being a patient) was probably the most mind-blowing part for me because this pandemic has been my life. It’s been everyone’s life, but for me it’s like it’s work, it’s home, it’s everywhere,” Burkard said. “To actually be the patient was very weird.”
While he knew that being a COVID-19 patient meant he would be alone, experiencing it for himself truly highlighted how challenging it can be.
“I think back to all the patients that I’ve taken care of with it and just how heartbreaking a lot of it has been,” Burkard said. “To see myself as the lonely patient sitting in a hospital room — wondering what was going to happen — is a hard place to be in especially for someone who is so used to taking care of people.”
Burkard received supplemental oxygen, remdesivir (an antiviral drug), steroids and convalescent plasma during his three-day stay. The nurses and technicians who visited him always boosted his mood and he is grateful for how they helped him feel less lonely.
“It’s hard to humble yourself to receive that care,” he said. “The nurses are the unsung heroes in this pandemic … They are the ones that are keeping people going.”
Burkard returned home to finish his recovery and hopes that after his isolation ends he can return to work and help others weather the crisis. The emotional toll can be tough but he feels grateful that he can help.
“What we're seeing is heartbreaking: watching people say goodbye to their loved ones. It's heartbreaking seeing someone gasp for air and prepare to get a breathing tube put in,” he said. “It stinks and I think as physicians we take that home with us.”
Growing empathy and understanding
He believes what he learned from his experience with COVID-19 will help him as a doctor.
“In the emergency room, we literally get to see the sickest people, and we get to save lives and we get to make a difference and my favorite part of my job is making that human connection,” he said. “The empathy portion of my job is why I was made to be a doctor. Actually, to have that experience to be able to sympathize with them and relate to them on that level is so huge for me.”
While he doesn’t want to shame people, who don't wear masks or think COVID-19 is a hoax, he hopes that his story inspires them to take precautions because they want to be kind to people in their communities.
“We are working our butts off to keep people alive right now. And if we don't take COVID-19 seriously it will affect all of us — it won't just affect the health care providers. It won't just affect the patients with COVID, it'll reach farther,” Burkard said. “It's not about fear mongering. It's about just having love for the people around us and respect for them. We’re saying from within the hospital, ‘We need you to take this seriously.’ So please, please listen to us.”