My Weakened Immune System and I During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) has been declared a pandemic by The World Health Organization. As the situation remains fluid, we’ll be sharing tips from doctors, nutritionists, and psychologists on additional things you can do to keep your mind and body well.

Thursday was the day of the Freak-Out. 

It had been 12 days since New York City confirmed its first Coronavirus case. The markets were crashing, President Trump closed the borders to most of Europe, and gigantic companies were sending employees home to work remotely indefinitely. The government’s response, both locally and federally, was all over the place. And so were the fears of my millennial friends.

There are fears of social isolation. One worried about reuniting with her husband who had flown across the world to visit his parents. Another, about being quarantined in a small apartment alone for two weeks. Many have brought up loneliness, anxiety, and detachment.

There was real outrage over a colleague’s building’s announcement that it would no longer accept Amazon packages. Friends headed to Italy this summer fretted about the possibility of a cancellation. 

Then, of course, the very real financial worries. A startup founder didn’t know if his fragile company would survive in a declining economy. Clearly there are bartenders, cooks, servers, and retail associates who can't go to work or get paid. But those weren't the people I heard complaining.

Every single aforementioned fear is valid, big or small. That said, it was hard for me to identify with my friends because my fears were so different. I felt lonely and strange that I seemed to be the only one actually scared of getting COVID-19. 

I might be worried about my physical health, but my friends are worried about their emotional, intellectual, and financial well-being. That is valid.

Ten years ago I had my spleen removed to fix an autoimmune disorder. Doctors have an official party line that the spleen protects you against encapsulated bacteria, of which there are three, all of which I’ve been vaccinated against. My reality, however, is that I’ve spent the last decade picking up what feels like any and every bug in my path. 

Every year I first get the flu shot and then the flu. This winter I missed not one but two trips with friends because I caught viruses. I’ve never made it through Art Basel in Miami nor the Sundance Film Festival, both events I love, with my health intact. A family friend who is a specialist once put it bluntly to me: “Don’t share a cocktail or kiss a boy unless he is worth being out of commission for a week.” 

Still, when Coronavirus settled into New York City I called my doctor, the one who ordered the splenectomy in the first place, to ensure I wasn’t one of those people with underlying health conditions they were talking about on the news. Her answer: “You are. You should be extra careful.”

My mom told me she wanted me to temporarily move to our family’s house in the suburbs of Memphis not because she thought I would be safe from the virus there, but because she wanted to help me when I inevitably got it. After Freak-Out Thursday I listened.

I am grateful every day to have friends that support my missing spleen condition. When people are passing around a cocktail at a party, they send it in the other direction so I won’t have to explain why I don’t want a sip. When I told them about the Memphis move they told me to go, that they would be there for me on FaceTime, that I wasn’t missing anything in New York City. Three of them teamed up to send a box of wine to keep my spirits up.

I wanted to be as supportive to them as they are to me. But I was having trouble embracing their fears. How could I worry about their vacation when I was worried about ending up in the hospital? And if I needed a hospital, would there ever be a bed available for me? I called Dr. Lisa Morse, a Clinical Psychologist in Manhattan, for help. I was surprised that the first thing she told me was that if I was going to retain empathy, I had to accept myself for having none. “You are entitled to not identify with someone’s reaction,” she said. “You are human, and we all make judgements.” 

When I delved in, I found that everyone is scared of the exact same thing: losing vital parts of ourselves and our lives.

The second step (and an easier one than not judging yourself for judging) is to dig a little deeper when listening. What were my friends really saying when they expressed their fears? “On the surface you can live without your packages,” said Dr. Morse. “Underneath it, I would venture to guess your friend is anxious about her life as she knows it is changing. And things being taken away from her and having no control.” 

My thinking has experienced a shift. 

Sure, in just a few days the Coronavirus situation got much more serious and with it, my friends’ concerns. Thoughts of cancelled trips vanished with fears about elderly parents getting sick, pregnant friends finding the healthcare they need, and school children eating lunch everyday. But I also changed my mindset. I might be worried about my physical health, but my friends are worried about their emotional, intellectual, and financial well-being. That is valid. We need all of those components in place for a happy, vibrant existence. When I delved in, I found that everyone is scared of the exact same thing: losing vital parts of ourselves and our lives. 

Coronavirus is a freak-out that is well justified. Now I realize, it’s also one we can all have together. 

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