Dr. Paul Frank is as board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon with offices in New York, the Hamptons, and Miami. Ahead, he shares his first-hand account of contracting COVID-19 and the days that followed.
During the first few days of March, my thoughts and activities were as predictable as always. I was generally overworked and focused on family, my busy practice, exercise, and social schedules. Coronavirus, at the time, was merely a word that belonged in another place in the world. Clearly, things were about to change. By the time the third week of March arrived, coronavirus was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Businesses, including mine, were starting to slow down, heeding recommendations that non-essential services should consider closing. As a physician and a small business owner, I was doing everything I could to minimize the damage of what was to come. My priorities were logistical, rather than health-focused. I saw patients at half volume and used whatever means necessary to protect my staff and my patients from any potential contagion. Although we proceeded with extreme caution, getting sick was the last possibility on my mind. I had just turned 50, was in the best shape of my life, had no health issues, and was psychologically overconfident enough to think I didn’t fit the coronavirus profile. With school closed, my family had migrated to our home in Long Island and I was alone in the city tying up loose ends.
On that Thursday, March 19th, after I finished with patients, I drove to Long Island with the feeling that my life and priorities were about to take a drastic turn. I was feeling extreme fatigue and disorientation, so I immediately put myself in isolation in our guestroom. The next morning, I woke up with 103.5 fever and began the frightening journey that challenged my body and mind in a way I’ve never experienced. Racked with fever and aches, I took solace in the fact that I had no breathing issues. Food was left at the door and I had zero contact with my family other than via FaceTime when I had the energy between fever spikes. It was on day seven that all of a sudden, a cough emerged—a heaviness in my chest fell upon me and I began to have breathing issues. At this point, there were no stories of relatively young, healthy people getting COVID-19, and no point of reference for me. The general consensus was that only the elderly or those with predetermined health issues were getting very sick. Young, healthy people were merely asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Frightened and alone, I suspected that I would soon need emergency medical care. My oxygen levels on my pulse oximeter dipped into dangerous numbers and I was unable to sleep more than 2 hours a night due to breathing issues. Wanting to be close to my affiliated medical center, Mount Sinai, and my office where I had medical supplies, I was able to transport myself back to Manhattan.
During the next three days—days 8 through 11—my health was unstable and unpredictable. I received a prescription for albuterol nebulizer treatments from my doctor and arranged to have oxygen tanks brought to me from my office. Given the frenzy at the hospital, I wanted to do all that I could to stay home. There are no visitors or outside contact allowed once you're admitted to a hospital, and clearly medical staff is overwhelmed with little experience on the best course of treatment for this disease. I monitored my own oxygen levels obsessively through the pulse oximeter, which has now become a common household item. I treated with Tylenol around the clock, drank Gatorade voraciously, inhaled nebulizers and used oxygen when I felt short of breath. I started a Z-Pak, figuring it couldn’t hurt, and the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which I had acquired weeks before as an unproven precaution. [Ed. note: new studies have shown safety concerns around taking high dosages of chloroquine, another antimalarial drug.] On day 12, my fever finally broke in a pool of sweat and my breathing appeared to marginally improve. Was it the medicine, or was it just my time for my body to take a turn for the better? I'm still finding out. Fortunately, my condition improves day by day, slowly and incrementally. This disease is not a flu and it’s not a normal virus—it is unique in its ability to debilitate healthy people, as well as the more medically susceptible. It is unpredictable. Recovery is slow and challenging and must be active. Walking a flight of stairs is like running a marathon. Coronavirus likes lethargy. Our brain expects recovery to be fast, but sadly, it writes checks that our body can’t quickly cash.
"This disease is not a flu and it’s not a normal virus—it is unique in its ability to debilitate healthy people, as well as the more medically susceptible."
Since the blessing of health came back into my life and I have tested negative for the virus, it is my priority to share my story, help where I can, minimize pain and suffering and most importantly, inspire people to take this seriously by staying at home. The power to minimize lives lost, allow the healthcare system to catch up, and to speedily get us back to our new normal is directly in our hands. Staying at home is the most proactive thing we can do. This is not a vacation. Almost half of those infected are potentially asymptomatic out there and up to 40 percent of virus tests are falsely negative. All we can do is do all we can do. Live your life like you have it and socially distance yourself to protect others. If you have any sort of medical symptoms, assume you’re positive and quarantine. Tests only give a piece of the puzzle.
The greatest blessing is that none of my family members, none of my staff, and none of my patients have reported illness. Where did I get it? That's of no importance to me. There should be no finger pointing with COVID-19. How we prevent spreading it is our priority.
Staying at home is the most proactive thing we can do.
People want to know—when does it does end, and what will the world be like? Do I think people will rush to seek out cosmetic treatments? When the hospitals catch up, testing will become universally accessible, and the numbers of new cases consistently will drop and we will return to life—slowly. That doesn’t mean people won’t still get sick. But we will have greater resources and knowledge on how to prevent and treat the beast. We will not go back to the way things were—that is a given. We will have a new normal, and by no means should it be any less special than the lives we lived prior to COVID-19. I have no doubt that commerce and consumerism will flourish once again, whether it’s through seeking beauty treatments or buying flowers locally. People want nothing more than to live their lives again—to feel good, to look good, to interact with each other. Human nature will not be defeated by this virus. It is my hope that the lessons learned from this tragedy will enhance the manner of which we live. Like all generations that have had their challenges, we will become smarter, safer, and more appreciative of the gifts we have always had right before our eyes.