Translating Lessons from Cancer to Covid: We are not ready.
This originally appeared in the Hartford Courant on May 24th, 2020
I walked out of the hospital and crossed the divide from the frigid air conditioned climate to the warm, seventy-degree February day in North-Central Florida. I felt sun rays dance atop my baId head and basked in sun-soaked freedom after 27 days on the bone marrow transplant unit in near isolation. Then, I vomited everywhere.
Now, as governors across the country implement reopening plans that, in some cases, skip the recommended checkpoints set forth by Dr. Anthony Fauci despite unwavering warnings about the consequences, I can’t help but feel nauseous. We’re not ready.
In the days leading up to my discharge, I would stare longingly outside my hospital room window at a bustling sidewalk and daydream about life after isolation. Soon, I’d be back at Wake Forest to finish my degree. Maybe I’d even have this mission-driven sock company off the ground by then. After eight months fighting refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I was in remission, and life after cancer seemed just beyond the next tray of unpalatable hospital food.
But instead, I threw up on myself. Beyond the sobering sensation of nausea, I had something else on my mind when I went home that day: an earlier conversation with my oncologist. He had reminded me that although I was in remission, I wasn’t out of the woods just yet. After a dozen rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, I had my cancer on the ropes, but before I rushed back to school or life as I knew it, I had to rebuild my immune system.
And that, he said, wouldn’t happen overnight, nor would there be any shortcuts. As a transplant patient, my white blood cell count was dangerously low, meaning that any sort of illness could swiftly end my life. The plan over the next few months was quite conservative: We would limit my exposure to any potential illness through home isolation, blast any remaining cancer cells with a month of radiation and continue to test along the way with scans and physical exams.
Hearing Dr. Fauci continuously reiterate the need to meet established guidelines, I can’t help but think back to my conversation with my oncologist. As a 22-year-old missing friends and family, I’d pushed back on my oncologist, saying that I wanted desperately to finish my degree. But just as resolute as Dr. Fauci and other disease experts who stand before Congress, my oncologist was undeterred.“You are vulnerable. You are not ready.”
Of course, as governors evaluate reopening plans, they aren’t doing so because college students might miss their senior year. The economic and social consequences are much greater today than my personal speed bump. The longer this shutdown persists, the more jobs are lost, and the more difficult it becomes for families to put food on the table. And now, as a small business owner who is no longer earning a salary, despite mounting bills, that sentiment resonates deeply with me. This, however, doesn’t obstruct the facts forming the underlying foundation of public health expert consensus. We are too vulnerable. We are not ready.
After discharge day, I was monitored closely to make sure my blood counts were improving and my cancer remained on the sidelines. Because my oncologist had established clear mile markers of blood counts and dates that needed to be surpassed, I never again pestered him about when I’d be permitted to venture outside the house or enter a public space. The science guiding his rationale was sound, and I trusted he had my best interest in mind.
Nowadays, as I toss and turn in bed, perseverating about how much longer our small sock company can last in a social-distancing world before we go under, I desperately want to be on the team yelling, “Let’s get the economy going!” But after watching Dr. Fauci testify from his home office about the importance of adhering to the guidelines set forth by public health experts, there can be no doubt about the correct course of action.
Death is too high a price to pay for premature reopening. We need to listen to the experts. We need to exercise patience. Enjoy the summer sunshine, but don’t throw up on yourself.