Our household’s story

A break from our regular, scheduled programming!

Yesterday, after work, I arrived home to news that one of my housemates had developed lethargy and a fever. These were worrying signs. My first thought obviously went to possible COVID-19 infection. I was anxious for my friend but I chose not to share my initial thoughts. Instead I waited for my other housemate, a doctor in NHS Glasgow, to come home to discuss our plan of action. There are strict guidelines for NHS staff that the entire household must self-isolation for 14 days if any member of household becomes infected with COVID-19. Everyone in the house was eager to get our flatmate tested, both for the sake our unwell friend and to provide clarity about the immediate future of our household.

Fortunately the government has recently rolled out COVID testing for any unwell NHS staff or members of their household. This is to enable staff to appropriately self-isolate only when absolutely necessary. As a house we decided that the best course of action was to contact my local occupational health department as quickly as possible. This involved emailing my managers and asking them to arrange testing as soon as possible.

By the time all the relevant emails were sent it was into the late evening. I was worried that my work team would be a member down the following day so I decided to send a message to the group to inform them of the situation. This was a difficult message to send as it was full of uncertainty. Was my flatmate unwell with COVID? When would I be allowed back to work? Would my team members struggle being a member of staff down during this crisis? A lot of guilt was rolled into that message. Guilt of feeling that I am letting my teammates down. Guilt about feeling completely well but having to stay at home whilst my colleagues are at work.

There was also a feeling of helplessness that struck me as I wrote that text to my colleagues. On the back of being at the frontline of this crisis and having access to the latest information and data regarding the local situation on the pandemic, I realised how disconnected I had become to the stories and plight of others at this time. Millions of families across the world are feeling this same helplessness, isolation and threat from infection, without the connection to the outside world that work is providing me with. Estimates suggest that 20% of the global population is in lockdown currently. (1) This represents a significant proportion of the world who have minimal contact with those outside of their immediate family and severely reduced access to physical activity and mental stimulation.

This morning I nervously waited to receive further instructions. Around 10am I hear my phone ring; it is the occupational health department. I answer the phone and I am greeted by a friendly occupational health nurse. She takes my details and my unwell flatmate’s details. We arrange for drive-though testing at 3pm in the carpark of a nearby medical clinic. I am informed that test results take up to 48 hours to come back and we will only be informed of positive results. If after 48 hours we have not received a follow up phone call then we can assume a negative result and we are free to stop self-isolating. Stress and uncertainty will likely be the overriding emotion for the next 48 hours.

I check in on my flatmate. He is currently isolated to his room. He is dedicated one of the bathrooms in the house, referring to the bathrooms as either “clean” or “dirty”. This is to reduce potential transmission of infection to other housemates. I nervously step into his room. He is sitting hunched over with the windows open blowing in cold air to keep him cool. He tells me that he is feeling very lethargic and has developed a mild dry cough now. I am more worried now.

I try to fill the day with a full body prison-style, body weight workout. I ordered 25L jerrycans over the internet several days ago which arrived yesterday to use as makeshift weights. I use this workout to test out my new gym equipment. Versatile and heavy. Good stuff.

2:30pm and it is time to head to the testing clinic. Both my fellow medic housemate and I decide to drive our unwell friend to the testing centre. We strap on FFP3 face masks and start the short drive. The roads are empty, eerily quiet and so the drive takes us about half the normal journey time.

When we arrive at the testing site we follow the strict instructions given to me by the occupational health nurse on the phone earlier in the day. We keep the windows rolled up. We present a sign with the name of the patient and the time of the appointment to the guard. He checks us in by calling his colleagues around the corner. The carpark entrance opens and we drive into an unlit portion of the underground carpark. The situation feels a little apocalyptic. As we turn the corner we see two nurses donning full protective equipment. They usher us forwards and once again we present them with the sign. They give us a thumbs up so we roll the windows down. I nervously await a sombre interaction.

We are instead greeted by two cheery nurses. They take our details and then comment that they like the decorations on our sign, some small pictures that I had chosen to draw in sharpie in an effort to lighten the rather bleak situation that we find ourselves in. My friend first has a swab taken of his throat, then both nostrils. It looks deeply uncomfortable but it is over quickly.

We drive back following COVID testing with my friend holding his sign. He is in good spirits despite being poorly.

We drive home struck by the ease of the testing. On reflection, what did we expect? Big banners advertising “COVID Testing Here”, a team of medical staff looking weary and downtrodden in head to toe protective equipment and queues of cars waiting to be tested perhaps? The situation was low-key, uneventful and both figuratively and literally underground. The local occupational health team have done a fantastic job reducing the stigma surrounding the situation and have normalised a stressful and difficult situation.

Now we nervously wait for the test results. All household occupants remain in lockdown for the next 48 hours. Today, I have begun to understand the immense difficulty of maintaining routine, physical and mental health during this lockdown. Today, I have started to empathise with the hundreds of thousands of households with an unwell individual who don’t have a clear diagnosis. We need to do more to increase testing of unwell individuals and to provide clarity to their lives. We live in uncertain times. We are unsure about the length of the pandemic and the risk of becoming infected. There is additional stress about the potential toll on our families and society in general due to illness. A diagnosis for unwell individuals shouldn’t be an additional uncertainty we should face in this climate. Today, we are the lucky ones.

P.S. Our friend and flatmate is doing well at the moment. I will keep you updated on how he gets on in the coming days.

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