I think everyone can agree that 2020 was quite a crazy year. Personally, I thought my darkest of days were behind me after my final surgery for ulcerative colitis (UC) was complete. Who would’ve thought I’d have to live through a pandemic, too?
Many of my friends, family members, and peers were not taking the severity of COVID-19 seriously during the early months of 2020, and I wasn’t either. With limited information available at the time, I thought, This will be nixed and taken care of in a few weeks or months. In our office, we tried to do our best to stay safe, implementing thorough cleaning procedures and social distancing starting in early March of 2020.
Then a coworker's husband who had been out of state for a conference was informed that he had possibly been in direct contact with someone who had COVID-19. Despite knowing this, my coworker continued to come into our office instead of quarantining at home with her husband. That’s when reality set in. I became nervous. I called my dad, who is a doctor, and asked him how serious it would be if I were to get COVID-19, but even he wasn’t really sure of the ramifications at the time.
My coworkers and I were given the option to start working from home during the third week of March. I took the opportunity. Getting sick terrified me, considering about 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut. Because of this, it is difficult for people with an autoimmune disease like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to fight off a common cold and other viruses and infections, especially after surgery for IBD. I had my colon removed urgently in 2013, and I underwent the three-step surgery series and now live with a J-pouch — meaning a big chunk of my immune system was removed with my colon. For those with a partially missing and weakened immune system, COVID-19 could cause severe damage.
Major Life Changes and a Revolving Door of Hospital Stays
Little did I know how much working from home, being isolated, and a complete change of routine would affect my UC. My depression and anxiety kicked into high gear, and I began struggling with intense symptoms of a seemingly never-ending flare. Before then, I hadn’t had an inpatient hospital stay in over three years. Unfortunately, in 2020, it felt like I was trapped in a vicious cycle of emergency room visits and hospital admissions due to extremely painful symptoms of UC flares.
Every hospital trip has been a different kind of scary during this time. The world is now in the midst of a global pandemic, with hospitals full of patients who are struggling to fight COVID-19. I had no idea what to expect, and I was scared to touch anything, let alone spend most of the time in the most germ-filled place: the bathroom.
When I was an inpatient in 2020, my family and friends couldn’t visit me. Sitting in a hospital by yourself is like sitting in some form of solitary confinement, left with only my phone and computer for communication. I missed Father’s Day and the day my sister picked her wedding dress — days and memories that I won’t get back. This made me think of the hundreds of thousands of people who are living with COVID-19 and those who are facing the consequences that come with this dangerous virus. Families with relatives in nursing homes and hospitals aren’t just missing days; they could be missing a lifetime.
While I will have the fortune of getting to see my sister on her wedding day, there’s a father out there who won’t get to walk his daughter down the aisle because he lost his life to COVID-19. Some grandparents spent the last days of their lives sitting alone in their rooms in nursing homes with no hugs from their grandchildren. Many teenagers won’t get to go to prom or graduate with their friends. And countless college students won’t learn valuable life lessons by having the chance to make dummy mistakes while living on campus.
Challenges of Living With an Invisible Illness
Living with invisible illnesses like COVID-19 or UC brings a distinct set of challenges. “You don’t look sick” is a phrase the IBD community hears all too often. No one should have to prove that they’re sick. Just like UC, COVID-19 can leave serious complications that are invisible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-term complications of COVID-19 can include these issues:
- Inflammation of the heart muscle
- Breathing issues
- Acute kidney injury
- Absence of smell or taste
- Sleep issues
- Difficulty with concentration
- Memory problems
- Depression and anxiety
- Changes in mood
Many of the problems that are caused by UC and COVID-19 are unpredictable, which, as someone living with UC, has always been a struggle for me. Fear of the unknown triggers anxiety for me, and panic attacks often worsen my UC symptoms.
The COVID-19 Vaccines: Hope for a Fresh Start
When your health is in bad shape, your freedom of living a normal day-to-day life is taken from you. I know what it’s like to have my freedom of health abruptly seized by an invisible illness. Since losing the confidence of knowing I’m fully healthy, my perspective has changed immensely on taking care of the health I do have.
Now that vaccines are available and most of my family is fully vaccinated, it feels like there’s hope for a new life yet again! It makes me so happy to see my friends voluntarily getting vaccinated. I will be getting vaccinated, not just for myself but for others. I have no hesitation in getting a COVID-19 vaccine, especially when it comes to wanting everyone and anyone to be as healthy as possible.
The COVID-19 vaccines are bringing back the chance for normalcy — it’s like a shield to protect against an intimidating illness. The privilege of making memories can be reignited. Families and friends can come together without fear of contamination. I can’t wait to go to concerts, parties, dinners, reunions, and weddings — things I have missed so much. A life without health is like a river without water. By getting the vaccine, I know that I’m protecting my most valuable asset: my health.