They’re specialty-trained in the very thing keeping them apart from everyone else. Two infectious diseases specialists exposed to COVID-19 share their 14 days in self-quarantine, including how they kept their families safe.
Most of us are doing our best to avoid COVID-19. For a physician who specializes in infectious diseases, though, the virus is all in a day’s work. This new coronavirus spreads easily, and you can be infected without showing symptoms for a few days, so self-quarantining away from family, friends and anyone else is essential after close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Geisinger infectious diseases (ID) specialists Pragya Dhaubhadel, MD, and Rob Brunner, DO, learned what life was like when they had to go solo.
In mid-March, Dr. Dhaubhadel treated the very first patient at Geisinger who tested positive for COVID-19 — though she didn’t know it at the time. “A patient who was in the hospital had respiratory issues for two days. They called ID because he wasn’t getting better. I got history about his exposure and risk factors and realized he could be a potential COVID patient, so we tested and he turned out positive,” she says.
In Dr. Brunner’s case, he treated a patient who initially tested negative for COVID-19 but was later found to be positive. “The tests are only so good. That’s nerve-racking alone because you rely on these tests,” he says. “Clinically, the scenario fit with COVID-19, but this is all new and so is the testing, so there’s a huge learning curve. Now we’re taking a more cautious approach.”
A cautious approach with everything in this strange new world seems to be key. Both doctors, upon learning they’d interacted with COVID-19-positive patients, were immediately sent home from the hospital by Geisinger's Employee Health team so they wouldn’t transmit infection to any other patients or employees. But what about their families?
“I had to figure out how to get the kids and sitter out of the house before I got home — it probably took me two or three hours to get into my house,” says Dr. Brunner. “The sitter had to gather up my two children and all the things they needed while I sat in my driveway for an hour.”
Once they got into their respective houses, Drs. Dhaubhadel and Brunner both had to figure out how to keep the other members of their households safe from potential infection. “I was kind of confused — where do I keep my clothes that were in the hospital?” says Dr. Dhaubhadel. “Despite being an ID doctor, I had to decide how I would act at home. I left all my clothes in the basement and went directly to the bathroom and took a shower.”
Both had to stay away from their families by quarantining themselves in a separate bedroom, away from everyone else in the house.
“After Employee Health told me to quarantine, my husband and I maintained a distance of 6 feet at home, eating in different parts of the kitchen and not sharing food from the same plate,” says Dr. Dhaubhadel. At first, they put their toothbrushes and towels in separate spots in their shared bathroom, but eventually they found it easier to just start using separate bathrooms.
Dr. Dhaubhadel set up a work-from-home space in her kitchen. “My husband brought my whole desktop to the kitchen and put it on the kitchen island. It was kind of good that I could work from home — that kept me occupied and I didn’t think too much about symptoms,” she says. Even remotely, she could do a lot of work to help her colleagues who were still in the hospital: Ask-a-Doc, telemedicine chart reviews and “tons of meetings” on the phone filled her days. “I did two radio interviews and a town hall with a congressman,” says Dr. Dhaubhadel, adding that these were things she might not have had time for if she were working in the hospital.
In Dr. Brunner’s household, having a 3-year-old son and infant daughter made quarantining complicated. “Last time I held her she was a newborn — she’s now 2 months old. I haven’t held my daughter in a long time. That’s the hardest part for me,” he says. As for the toddler, “He’d knock on the door of the bedroom and say, ‘Daddy, come play with me,’ and I’d say, ‘I can’t.’ He takes it personally on some level — he doesn’t understand.”
The practical things were tough, too. “The procedure for laundry was crazy,” Dr. Brunner says. “I’d wait until my wife and kids went to sleep, then I’d go out and do laundry and sterilize the laundry room afterward.” His wife left his meals outside the room he stayed in.
He also worked from home to keep himself occupied during his 14-day self-quarantine. “I was doing outpatient visits as telephone visits, and was able to cover the inboxes for my partners and get stuff done,” he says. “You want to stay busy and not think about it so much.”
Despite being specialty-trained in infectious diseases, the very thing that was keeping them apart from everyone else, both doctors admit that the experience shook them.
Dr. Dhaubhadel called her parents, who live in Canada, though at first, she didn’t tell them there was a chance she’d gotten COVID-19. “Emotionally, when I talked to my parents — my dad is 85 and my mom is 76 — I would think, ‘If something happens to me, will I be able to see my parents?’ But I couldn’t show that feeling to them.”
Dr. Brunner had similar worries. “The really tough part was not knowing whether I was ever going to come out of that room. Not to be dramatic, but it did cross my mind. I remember thinking, ‘That could have been the last time I parked my car at my house,’” he says. “I talked to my lawyer about my will. My wife and I made arrangements, because what if we both got sick? Who would watch the kids? The idea that you could potentially hurt your children – the stress of that is unbelievable.”
Advice to others
Neither Dr. Dhaubhadel nor Dr. Brunner got infected with COVID-19, and both returned to work at the hospital at the end of their two-week self-quarantines.
“It’s a process which is placed by our system and Employee Health to keep us safe,” Dr. Dhaubhadel says. “If you are exposed, you should not feel like you are untouchable or something like that. Continue to live your life as you would with extra precautions, like handwashing, maintaining social distance, cough etiquette, et cetera. Do not go out when you are in quarantine. This is the only way to mitigate this pandemic.” She followed the guidelines set by Employee Health, monitoring for respiratory symptoms and taking her temperature twice a day to check for fever, and was eager to return to work as soon as she was allowed. “I’m a little workaholic,” she says.
“The first 24 hours of quarantine are terrifying,” says Dr. Brunner. “But still look at the disease as you can do okay if you get it. I sterilized everything, I stayed away from my family as much as possible, I did everything the CDC recommends, like cleaning door handles,” he says. His advice to anyone else in his shoes? “Try not to panic. Rely on others for help. Friends of ours dropped off food because we couldn’t leave the house. We had FaceTime dinners with family from four separate locations.”
If you’re exposed to COVID-19, you can stop the spread to others around you, even those in your home, like these infectious diseases specialists did: by simply keeping your distance for a couple of weeks.