I strip off my clothes in the garage and shiver. It’s about ten degrees colder here than in my house, but I can’t enter yet. My clothes might be contaminated by a deadly virus that has disrupted life across the globe. I enter the house and immediately throw the clothes that may be contaminated into the laundry machine, and I head to the shower, avoiding the loud shouts of my two-year old son and five-year old daughter, the concerned looks of my husband and mother.
They do not engage in this same process every time they come home. Then again, they haven’t left the house in days. They are abiding by the governor’s stay-at-home order. But I’m not. I can’t.
I am a pharmacist. I am an essential worker in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And honestly, I am scared. Every day.
I know my exposure risk is not as high as it is for the doctors and nurses on the front line who are treating patients with active illness. (And I’m forever thankful for everything that they do). But I am in a profession where I interact with sick people on a daily basis, and I’m vulnerable to exposure. The quarantine came with a surge of patients looking to refill their medications out of fear they would not have access to them later. Every other person I come in contact with has a cough or runny nose or fever these days. Maybe those symptoms were always ever-present and now I’m hyper vigilant to them, but maybe not.
Part of my oath as a pharmacist is that “I will consider the welfare of humanity and relief of suffering my primary concerns.” I take my profession and my oath seriously. I won’t turn away from the commitment I have made to myself and the community. But that doesn’t mean every day I don’t wonder whether today will be the day the wrong person coughs in my direction. Or whether today will be the day I touch the wrong surface and then, unknowingly, my face. Every prescription for a cough medication or inhaler sends a jolt of panic straight into my bones. Every time a patient needs help finding something in the aisle, I find myself holding my breath as long as I can.
I do my best to lower my risk and control what I can. Every shift, I start by wiping down the phones and the counters. My hands are cracked and raw from washing and sanitizing throughout the day. I wear a mask and gloves. I barely eat, drink, or use the restroom. Not because I’m not allowed to, but because the act of taking off the gloves or mask, and then washing my hands, often multiple times during the process, is so arduous that sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Before I leave, I sanitize my phone and my keys. I wipe down the counters and phones again even when I’m the only one working in that particular zone. When I get home, I keep an extra set of clothes in the garage to change into. My jacket and purse stay in the car, and my shoes never make it past the threshold. Any lunch dishes or water bottles go immediately into the dishwasher so that no one else handles my dirty supplies. My husband sleeps in the basement to minimize his exposure risk. Maybe the precautions are too extreme and I don’t need to do all these things, but maybe I do. I don’t know any more.
What I do know is that there are moments where I feel like I can’t breathe. Where my brain shuts down, and I can’t move past the fear. The fear of not just getting sick, but of being the one to bring this into my home, to my family, to my children and my husband and my mother.
So I spend my time at home trying to be as careful as possible, trying not to breathe in anyone’s face (which, if you know what kids this age are like, you know “in your face” is exactly where they want to be), wiping down door handles, and steam cleaning floors. Some days are tougher than others. Some days are busier or just more emotional for no particular reason. On the really hard days, when I come home sometimes I find myself hiding in the bathroom, or taking a few extra minutes in the shower, because maybe those few extra minutes will be what protects my family from the most dangerous thing in the house: me.
Maybe it will get better soon. I hope so. But I have a feeling the worst is still coming. And I’m not just referring to COVID-19. For a lot of us, the emotions and the fear and the anxiety will continue to worsen as the pandemic rages through our cities and towns. The next few days, weeks, or months (hopefully not months) are going to test all of us.
I only hope that I have the strength to make it through this, not just physically, but mentally. That maybe one day soon I’ll be able to breathe again without worrying about someone being too close. That I can come home and eat dinner without having to strip and shower and disinfect my phone and the door handles and anything else I touch on my way to the bathroom. That my children can return to school and the park and their friends. That I can sleep through the night without the suffocating fear that I’ll be responsible for the death (or illness) of someone I care about, or even someone I don’t know and expose by accident.
That may come one day. But it’s not today.