Dr. James Pruden, Opinion contributor
Published 5:00 a.m. ET Jan. 3, 2021 | Updated 8:10 a.m. ET Jan. 3, 2021
Dr. Jim Pruden is discharged from St. Joseph’s University Medical Center on April 8, 2020. Pruden was in critical condition with coronavirus.
To say I was ravaged by COVID is an understatement. I spent 31 days in the ICU, lost 80 pounds, could not turn over, and could never get enough air.
When I was young, I was told, as were many of you, that I had to “be patient.”
It might come after a question like “Are we there yet?” or, while standing at the Christmas tree waiting for some errant family member to get out of bed, it might have been “Can I open my presents now?”
In that time of my life, I thought being patient just meant I had to sort of “chill out.” When I looked it up in the dictionary (truthfully, when I “Googled it”) I found a bit more ominous definition: “Patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset.”
I contracted COVID in early March, at the beginning of the East Coast experience. In fact, I was one of the very first admitted to my hospital for this condition.
Dr. Jim Pruden is discharged from St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Pruden, a doctor at St Joseph’s University Medical Center, was in critical condition with coronavirus. (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)
I say “my hospital” because I have worked at St. Joseph’s for nearly 40 years as an emergency physician, and have found it to be a wondrous experience.
To say I was ravaged by this illness, would be an understatement. Of the 31 days I spent on the intensive care unit, 18 of them were spent on a ventilator. I lost 80 pounds, and could not even turn over in bed on my own. But more intense than the loss of weight (I needed to lose some) and the loss of strength, was the never ending awareness that I could not get enough air.
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I became the poster child for IMPATIENCE when I had to lie flat for my second CT scan, which occurred just before my second intubation. Lying flat made breathing so difficult that I remember screaming at the technicians to please, please hurry. It was the closest I have ever been to experiencing sheer terror.
By the time I was being discharged for rehab, I could just about feed myself and brush my hair. Fortunately, I am mostly bald headed so it did not take much effort to do that.
So what does this have to do with patience?
When my fiancé Liz and I made arrangements for an August wedding, we were active in our St. Mark’s church choir, we got pleasure in actually going to the movies, and we just loved to dance.
Now it was the middle of April, and I was oxygen dependent, I had no taste for food, and I could barely stand with assistance, let alone dance.
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Although it has now stopped, for some still unexplained reason, flesh was peeling from my hands to the degree that my son Christopher and I joked that I could use them in a zombie apocalypse movie.
For me, the guideposts for patience were embodied in the Serenity Prayer. You know …
“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other”
This was a chance for me to embody that prayer.
The trick has always been defining that which I could change and that which I could not change.
No one knew why the skin on my hands was flaking. Perhaps it was a reaction to the 5,000 medications I had been given. The hope was that it would go away by itself. So I could listen to The Beatles and “Let It Be” or I could listen to the movie “Frozen” and “Let it Go,” but I had to move on to something else.
In order for me to learn to relearn to stand on my own, to walk, to lift things, the medical team would identify the specific deficit, and the physical therapists would drive me relentlessly to do it “just 10 more times.” I even gave them murderous nicknames, which only seemed to intensify their efforts. They were special.
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As for the oxygen dependence, I was having pain with each deep breath. I knew that pushing the envelope of pain was the way to overcome it, but I was finding that very hard.
It ultimately took a significant turn for the better when Liz and I were trying to dance and something terribly funny happened. Suffice it to say that I was laughing so deeply I was forced to take deep breaths in spite of the pain.
So as far as patience goes, I think one must strive to identify the things in their control, and work hard to make them happen.
More importantly, one must accept the things that are beyond their control and let the fates do as they will. The hard part is knowing which is which.
Incidentally, Liz and I danced for four hours at our wedding.
Dr. James N. Pruden is an emergency medicine specialist at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson. This column originally appeared in NorthJersey.com.
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