It was a lazy Saturday. I sat curled up on the couch with coffee in hand enjoying the silence. My cell phone rang and I was surprised to see a friend’s daughter calling from the West Coast. It was 6 a.m. her time. I picked up quickly with a little catch in my heart. I knew she wouldn’t call this early without a reason. I was right. She was very concerned about her parents and hadn’t slept well. She knew I would be awake.
Her parents, Frank and Sharon, like so many others, had been victims of Covid in 2020. Though physically recovered from that brush with death, the emotional toll remained. A virus that spread like a brushfire had created a fire that scorched their marriage, their relationships, and their mental health. Their daughter described diagnoses including severe PTSD, depression, anxiety, and a suicide attempt. This was the reason for her call.
Prior to Covid, Frank and Sharon lived a normal quiet life. While no marriage is perfect, it seemed they had a pretty good one. Drastic changes in life were about to occur and neither were equipped. Frank was diagnosed with Covid and required immediate hospitalization. His respiratory status declined rapidly and would require ventilatory support within 12 hours of admission. Frank while gasping for air said, “I don’t want to die.” The medical team sedated him and then placed him on a ventilator.
Sleep, blessed sleep, or was it?
Two days after Frank’s admission Sharon began to feel sick and also became positive for Covid 19. She entered into home quarantine for 14 days. The support system she would typically have was absent. She was alone. Each day she waited for the doctor’s call. They were brief as the doctor rushed through the morning statistics. She spoke little during these conversations and wrote down as much as she could as the doctor often used words she couldn’t spell, much less understand. Prognosis at this time was reported to be 50/50. Fear crept into her existence and found her home alone.
Days turned to weeks and then good news was finally delivered on that daily phone call. Frank was doing better. Sharon shouted with joy but the words that came next tempered her response. His body had become severely weak during this time and he would require weeks in the hospital before he would be safe to return home.
Sharon’s emotions ran high as she thought to herself, “He will survive, but will I?” She was suffering from her isolation. Life out there will never fill safe again.
Weeks later they were reunited when Frank returned home. Happy ending, right?
Unfortunately, no. They each experienced a trauma which profoundly affected their life. While physical healing had occurred, the greater battle was yet to come. It was their Second Pandemic.
Unfortunately, stories like Frank and Sharon’s are more common than not. However, in this couple’s anguish, they were also living in shame.
“Why are we not feeling better about life? What’s wrong with us, what’s wrong with you?”
All of the shame, fear, anxiety, and stress are now someone else’s fault. These emotions are more easily attached to the person in front of you rather than a virus which can’t be seen. Words spoken, “We need a divorce. I need to take my life. I can’t live like this”
Is there hope? Hope is that mystical, magical emotion which helps us survive and sometimes thrive while still suffering. Let me begin with wisdom that I have learned by working with dying patients throughout my medical career and how hope could help Frank and Sharon and those like them.
- Hope allows me to find joy today while not knowing what tomorrow holds.
- Hope can come even in the midst of suffering.
- Hope is a practice. It is a decision made through multiple other options on how you will choose to think and act.
- Hope gives us courage to face our fears and the abilities to move past them.
You may be asking, well, how do I manufacture hope when I can’t see past my pain and fears
- Look to your faith traditions for finding hope. If faith is not part of your lexicon, then look to the creation itself and seek answers. As a member of the Western Cherokee tribe, I know my ancestors sought spiritual answers from their physical world.
- Write down all the bad things that have happened or could happen because of your second pandemic. Now write down all the good things that have happened or could happen as you not only survived but now could thrive through both pandemics.
- Know that this season of suffering has an ending date. You are better prepared for the next season of suffering.
- Don’t make long term decisions while in the midst of short-term suffering.
- You are not alone in your suffering and shame. Recent studies,  revealed severe emotional stress in approximately 30% of Covid survivors. Finally, shame should never be attached to your emotions. Shame pain only makes you isolate which is the WORST thing that you can do. The more authentic you are in sharing, then others will find freedom in doing so as well. This is where healing truly begins.
- Finally, seek professional help. Time is your friend only if you feel better today, than yesterday. If not, you made need to seek professional help to find your hope.
There are many strategies that can be used to overcome the emotional side of the second pandemic. Hope can be delivered by overcoming irrational fears or navigating rational fears. PTSD is particularly responsive to treatment. The programs include Cognitive Processing Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Prolong Exposure Therapy. You may be experiencing PTSD and are not aware of it, however, it is affecting your everyday life.
The first step of Frank and Sharon’s healing was situational awareness. The same can be for anyone having survived Covid and yet are still struggling. Perhaps you have not recognized your remote Covid experience as the source of your emotions. The second was their understanding that they are not alone and neither are you. The third was putting on their “Hope Mantle”, even when they didn’t feel like it.
Once you are aware, then you can find the help you need from others and professionals. One of my favorite resources for diagnosis and referrals is: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/
Finally, for all mental health issues, a great starting point: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/get-involved/education-awareness/shareable-resources-on-coping-with-covid-19
Most important: Do not let the pandemic which robbed part of your life continue to be the thief in your second pandemic. Life is short and meant to be lived.
DR. PAMELA PRINCE PYLE has practiced hospital-based medicine in the United States since 1992 and on mission since 2009 with Africa New Life Ministries in Rwanda. She is the current Chair of the Board of that ministry. She is the author of A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dyingto be printed in 2022 and writes for various news and human interest print and digital sources. You can subscribe to The Post at www.pamelaprincepyle.com.