[FIRST PERSON] I became PH253

Dr. Jose Antonio Bautista

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[FIRST PERSON] I became PH253
'Once these results come back negative, it won’t take long before I am sent back to the throes of war — an invisible war against an invisible foe, to become a frontliner yet again, ever ready to save people one soul at a time'

I am a physician, an adult cardiology fellow. I am also a frontliner. 

Regardless of how many times I wash my hands or wear a surgical mask or an N95 mask, I am at a high risk for any kind of infection. Frontliners are not at a lesser risk of infection just because of strict self-protection protocols.

It was around March 9 when I was unconsciously exposed to a Patient Under Investigation (PUI)-turned-COVID positive case in the hospital — all during my tour of duty. Despite my protective gear and meticulous handwashing, I slowly contracted symptoms, such as low-grade fever, chills, and muscle pains. I could’ve stopped working, but I had to continue on and fulfil my duty to the patients we had to save.

Two days later, during my 36-hour tour of duty, the symptoms started to hit me hard: high-grade fever, chills, and worsening joint pains. I sought consult at our emergency room, and I was then declared as a PUI. (READ: Braving a pandemic: Frontliners battle fear to confront the novel coronavirus)

Patient under investigation 

My first COVID swab was traumatic. They stuck the swab through my nose to get a sample – an experience that I didn’t want to repeat again, though I had it for 4 more times after that. Worse, I had to wait not just 24 to 48 hours, but rather, 6 days before my first test came out. It was negative. 

I was sent home that day to start my home quarantine. I stayed at my aunt’s condominium unit away from my family, whom I haven’t seen for days and counting since my ordeal started. My greatest worry then was my parents, who are in their senior years and have their own share of co-morbidities, possibly contracting the virus from me and my younger brother, who is also a doctor. It was a worrisome idea that I had to bear for days on end. (READ: LIST: How to help healthcare workers, frontliners during coronavirus pandemic

During my self-quarantine, I felt so alone: I had to fix my own room and prepare my own meals despite the high fever and chills. I had to take my paracetamol pills to tone down a fever that never seemed to disappear. I even had to do tepid sponge baths on myself despite my worsening weakness. It was hard, but I had to survive on my own.

Five days after the index event — going on the third day of self-quarantine — my friend and former chief resident, an Infectious Disease fellow, strongly advised me to get admitted because of my worsening symptoms. I was hesitant at first, but because my fever was spiking to as high as 40 degrees Celsius and my body was not having any of it anymore, I had myself admitted at our hospital. But first, I had another COVID swab taken while waiting for 10 hours outside the sweltering heat of the ER, packed with PUIs and unsuspecting COVID-positive cases. 

Seeing the ER staff working hard round-the-clock made me realize the risks these heroes: doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff, take just to save one soul at a time, even at the expense of their own safety. 

People were ranting about poor service. But what good do their rants about waiting for 10 hours make when the staff are so overworked to the point that they even tend to forget to care for themselves? (READ: Undermanned, overworked: A doctor’s view from the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak)

I was then admitted at a regular room-turned-isolation room — a heroic and gallant effort on the part of the hospital to accommodate such patients despite going beyond their capacity to admit more. That room would then bear witness to the sufferings I was about to endure during my stay.

Positive case

I never felt so hopeless and weak on my first week: persistent fever and chills, loss of appetite to the point I was seeing my jawline after the first hospital week, and worsening muscle aches. The worst was when, at one time, I was coughing non-stop, suffocating and gasping for air due to the lack of oxygen inside my infected lungs, that the nurse hurriedly hooked me to the oxygen tank via a nasal cannula just to help me breathe. I was already submissive to the fact that I was about to get intubated and possibly sent to the Intensive Care Unit, but God had another day ready for me.

It was during that harrowing moment when I then learned of my fate: I was COVID-19 Positive. 

I became PH 253.

When I was told of my diagnosis, my first reaction was just any sick doctor’s reaction to his or her own illness: “Okay.”

Back then, I was already in the doldrums of my sickness: antibiotics were not working well on me. My sputum culture turned out consistent with hospital-acquired pneumonia. My chest X-ray showed progression of pneumonia infiltrates, and round-the-clock, high-dose intravenous paracetamol was not doing wonders.

Prayers and well-wishes from my family, fellow doctors, staff, med school, residency and fellowship friends and even from my nephew’s pre-school teacher, were enough then just to keep me alive during those worsening times. 

Things started to turn for the better when my antibiotics were shifted to Ertapenem, a high-level antibiotic, and two “miracle” pills for COVID-19: Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin. As these medications were started, my fever then started to abate, up to the point that my hospital bed was drenched in sweat after the second dose of Ertapenem. 

Waiting for full recovery

I was starting to breathe better to the point that I did not need oxygen support anymore. I started feeling lighter and better to the point that I could already open the air-conditioning unit and absorb all the chill inside the room. A chest x-ray then showed that my pneumonia was starting to clear out and improve.

It was a miracle that I didn’t expect. To think I had already submitted to the sad truth that I may not make it through. 

Five days after I started feeling well, my attending doctor had me endure two repeat COVID swabs — tests to prove that my sickness was nearing its end. The pain that I had to endure just to have swabs stick inside my throat and nose were nothing now compared to the trauma I felt when I thought I was about to die.

Looking back, I realized that COVID-19 spares no age group, and that it can devour even the strongest of immune systems. My experience with that harbinger of death taught me to trust the process through the unsung heroes of this fight – our frontliner doctors, nurses, and staff, – to believe in the power of medicine and science, to have a great support system to hold on to, and most especially, to pray to God, and have faith to trust in miracles.

To date, I am still waiting for the results of these COVID swabs while on my second week of confinement. 

Once these results come back negative, it won’t take long before I am sent back to the throes of war — an invisible war against an invisible foe, to become a frontliner yet again, ever ready to save people one soul at a time. – Rappler.com


Dr. Jose Antonio Bautista, or Bodjie to his family and friends, is an Adult Cardiology Fellow at the Heart Institute of St. Luke’s Medical Center – Global City, Taguig. He enjoys seeing and treating patients during busy days, reading textbooks and journals, and presenting in conferences and conventions. He watches movies and anime, dabs into tech, games, and food, and spends quality time with his family during his spare time.

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