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What It’s Like Being a Pregnant ER Doctor in New York City Who Tested Positive for COVID-19


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Women represent 70% of the health care and social service workforce worldwide. To achieve Global Goal 3, good health and well-being for all, we must ensure frontline workers are protected. You can join us and take action on this issue here.

Pregnancy suppresses women’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease, but it is still unknown if COVID-19 affects pregnant women more severely.

Dr. Poonam Desai is a New York City emergency room doctor. Desai is pregnant and tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of March and is continuing to see patients virtually as she recovers from mild symptoms. 

Desai spoke to Global Citizen about her experience with coronavirus, as well as the challenges she faces as a frontline worker in the epicenter of the pandemic in the US. She also provided advice for pregnant women and talked about how she would like to see support for health care workers from the international community.

Read her story below.

This is something that many of us ER doctors — many of us physicians — have never seen before. 

We're facing a virus that we know very little about. Even in my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that I'd be a frontline health care worker during a pandemic. It's not something that I thought about or was really mentally or emotionally prepared for. 

The hardest thing for all of us, as ER doctors and health care workers, was grasping the reality of it — that there are sick people and we're not going to be able to save everybody. 

We've come a long way in the last few weeks in better understanding the symptoms and trying to manage COVID-19 the best we can, with the limited data that we do have. 

Another difficult thing for us, as physicians, is not being able to fully understand the disease, not being able to provide some type of cure, and not being able to save all the lives we want to save, along with, obviously, what the mass media has been talking about — the lack of PPE. Many hospitals, [health care] spaces, and many health care workers are facing it. That's huge because people don't want to go home and bring this home to themselves or their loved ones. 

The most important part of this is that COVID-19 can present in so many different ways. You could be asymptomatic and have COVID-19 — or you could have severe symptoms where you end up in the ICU. People are anxious, people are scared.

People feel like, 'Oh, COVID-19 may be a death sentence.' It's scary and yes, many people do get very sick, but a lot of people do very well with the disease, and I think a little bit of optimism does help during this time.

I didn't know how sick I was going to get initially when I started getting symptoms. Day one, day two — I didn't know what was going to happen on day seven and day nine. That is, and that was, the scariest part for me. I was fortunate enough to get a test because I'm an ER doctor. I was fortunate enough to get tested very early to know whether or not I should be going to work, and potentially exposing myself to more of a viral load.

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There's very, very limited data when it comes to COVID-19 and pregnancy. There was nowhere to look for answers. I could ask my obstetrician, but she may not know any more than I know. And I could contact an infectious disease doctor, but they're gonna say, 'Well, here are the few studies, you know about them and I know about them,' and that's about it.

What I would tell everybody is that we don't know enough. I would say to be very cautious. The more we learn about the disease, the better we can say something, but it's constantly changing and we're constantly learning more. 

Initially, they had told us, at one of the hospitals I was thinking of delivering at, that they had banned anybody from coming [into the delivery room]. I couldn't have taken my husband if I was going to deliver. Luckily, that changed very quickly. It would be very scary to be in the hospital, to be scared that you may potentially get COVID-19, and that you may be separated from your baby for at least seven to 14 days if you do test positive for COVID-19. And then to not have your partner there throughout the whole process. For many, many people that I was talking to, nationally, globally, that was a huge fear for them.

Pregnant and COVID . 🤰🏽Are pregnant patients at an increased risk of getting the infection or getting very sick from it?! Pregnant patients are considered immunocompromised so the thought is yes however the data thus far has not shown that pregnant patients are at a greater risky than the average population for getting very sick. . 🤰🏽What happens if pregnant and test positive for COVID? Call your OB. The same protocol as if you had gotten sick otherwise with COVID. Isolate. Take tyl for fever. Hydrate. Rest. If symptoms cannot be managed at home, seek immediate medical care. . 🤰🏽Does it cause harm to the baby if COVID positive? So far the data does not suggest any harm to the baby. But there is limited data. 🤷🏾‍♀️ . 🤰🏽I happen to have mild symptoms of COVID thus far. It is possible to be a pregnant front line health care worker, contract COVID, and have mild symptoms! There is a lot of people who get very sick from COVID19 and there are a lot more people who only suffer from mild to no symptoms. 🙏🏾 . 🤰🏽How long to isolate? CDC states 7 days from start of symptoms and 3 days of NO fever without use if fever reducing me and no other symptoms. . Pregnancy in itself can be anxiety provoking and we all want to be super careful during this precious time. Being Pregnant and having to worry about the UNKNOWNs of COVId19 is even scarier. . Rest assured, so far pregnant, COVID19 positive, and doing well! 🙏🏾 . Tag anyone who is pregnant and needs to hear this!! . . #covıd19 #covid #pregnancy #pregnant

A post shared by Dr. Poonam Desai (@doctoranddancer) on

This is one of the biggest moments in their lives and they want to be able to share it with their partner. They want their husbands, their wives, whoever it may be, to be right next to them. 

I definitely think going forward, every health care system, nationally and probably globally, is going to be better prepared, I would hope, for a pandemic. Whether that means having the right PPE for health care workers, triaging, to all kinds of hospital protocol.

I'm amazed and in awe of many of the New York state hospitals, at how quickly they were able to change things, to adapt to the pandemic — whether it was through changes to triage and deciding where the patients would go, or where the ICU beds would go, on top of figuring out who's going to help us in the ICU, who's going to help us in the ER. Many of the hospitals did an incredible job of adapting almost on an hourly to a daily basis. 

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Protect your health care workers, because if we fall sick, we can't be there to take care of the patients. Have enough proper PPE nationally and globally, and get all the information out to the people as quickly as possible. That means stay at home and tell them to stay home from the get go and avoid having so many mixed messages. 

I’m 29 weeks, I'm just starting my third trimester, and I would love to go back to work as soon as possible.

I enjoy what I do and there's a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction, being there on the frontlines and helping, especially during a pandemic. 

This story has been condensed and edited for clarity.