Dr. Kass opens up about surviving coronavirus

Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass has been working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Here she shares her experience as a medical professional and as a coronavirus survivor. Her journey to overcome the virus is like many others around the world, at times extremely difficult, emotionally draining but overall inspiring. Watch the video above to hear her story.

Video Transcript

DARA KASS: My name is Dara Kass. I am an emergency medicine doctor at Columbia University Medical Center. I live in Brooklyn with my husband and three children. I think that you're the best physician when you're honest and in touch with who you are, and for me, that includes being a wife and a mother.

We started paying attention to COVID-19 really not just when it was in China but when it was in Italy. Somewhere around the beginning of March, I would say, we started seeing a real increase in the number of cases in New York City. And I called a friend of mine and I said, it's about to get really bad.

Being on the front lines, I had to look to my own family and say, how can I keep my family safe? With the high likelihood of me getting it, we had to separate. And it felt unfair on some level, but I also was watching so many other people make sacrifices. I knew that week, which was before anything had gone to lockdown really, that it was going to be a really long, hard-fought battle, and it wasn't going to get-- it was going to get much, much worse before it got better.

Watching people lose the ability to breathe over and over again can give you nightmares, and so I just would get texts and phone calls from friends of mine that would talk about the number of people that are not able to breathe and who needed to be intubated and who needed to, you know, go to the ICU and then when patients started passing away.

And I remember telling them they had to talk to me or somebody. They had to get it out.

And then as soon as you see those results, you're like, wait a minute. Like, oh, am I going to be OK, right? You've spent the past week and a half, two weeks, maybe it's a month-- now it's three months-- seeing patients, so you don't really think a lot about your own mortality because you're very busy thinking about everybody else's mortality. It is a rude awakening to have to spend a few hours, even, deciding what you would do if you had to be a patient in the ICU and then telling your parents about that and telling your husband about that and then your kids because the next thing I had to do is call my kids and say, hey, guys. Don't I make coronavirus look good? because they're still kids and they don't need all your anxiety.

But I think that, yeah, it hits you all the time, especially at night. So I didn't know if I was going to be OK, but I knew I was OK for today. And so every day I woke up. I would say, can you breathe? All right, I'm good for now, and then I would go on about my day. And I think for me, that was the best thing I could do to handle the uncertainty and what it was going to look like.

There was a sense of identity that I could have with my patients that made it easier for me to feel like there was a reason why I got the virus because I could use it to be a better doctor.

There was a week, like a week and a half, two weeks ago, that was bad. You know, it had been the end of really the onslaught of patients but for some reason everyone I knew was dying. Somebody in my department died. The best nurse I ever trained under died. A chief ICU where I did my residency died. My friend's grandma died. My friend's mom died. It was like every day there was something.

And I cried a lot because that's what you're supposed to do when people die. And then I got up, and I did what I could do for the next patient. And if I think about it, I cry. But that's the natural grieving process, the moment that we're in, right, is don't bottle up these feelings. Like, lean into them if you're scared, but don't let them consume you. I mean, part of what I think that we need to learn about in this moment is how to deal with uncertainty because we are going to be in a really uncertain time for a really long time.

It's clear that the effect of this is not over, and it's clear that there's going to be doctors and nurses, front-line providers who are going to not recognize the pain and suffering they had until it gets quieter, until the moment is over. We hope that the resources we've given out by being there for each other, by expanding mental-health services, by talking out loud about our experiences will buffer the pain that a lot of people are already recognizing they're in. So I think that there will be an element of trauma that's going to live with all of us after this, and we may not know what that looks like for a few months or even a year.

I think that it's really important to know what services are out there for you and to reach out and get whatever you can do. But most importantly, whatever it is, you can't do this alone.