Living Compromised During COVID-19

Globally, life has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for those with chronic illnesses and conditions that compromise their immune systems, the coronavirus means even more adjustment. 

“I am dealing with a couple of different autoimmune conditions,” said Mary Bixler, a recent University of Central Oklahoma graduate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised that individuals with other medical conditions are at greater risk for complications due to COVID-19. Conditions the CDC lists as having potential for serious complications include heart and lung conditions, diabetes, kidney and liver disease and those with immunocompromising conditions.

Bixler’s conditions affect her endocrine system, bladder and digestive system. Normally, she manages them with medication, diet, regular visits with her doctors and physical therapy.  

 “I see a couple different specialists and they aren’t seeing people,” Bixler said. “That’s been super frustrating from the medical community.”

Recently, a prescription ran out and when Bixler’s pharmacy called to fill it, the doctor was out of the office. This left her to go without the medication and deal with the repercussions.

Bixler also hasn’t been able to attend physical therapy. Instead, she has to find ways to cope with the pain and flare ups her conditions are causing. 

 “People who are living with chronic illness or, you know, illness that’s debilitating, it’s super frustrating,” Bixler said. “I honestly feel pretty failed by the medical community and how they’re handling everything.”

However, Bixler said she sometimes feels selfish being frustrated because she knows that everyone is trying to come together to help those with the virus right now. 

Not everyone has shared her negative experience with doctor’s offices since the pandemic began. 

“I’m considered a complicated patient and I’m at a high risk with this coronavirus,” said Holly Williams, a 58-year-old heart patient and diabetic from McLoud. “[My doctors] would rather just do it via telephone so that I don’t have to come in and be exposed to anything like that.”

Williams, who is retired, said she is glad to be able to avoid going out. Her immune system is severely compromised, an issue that began as a child with severe allergic reactions to standard immunizations. 

“There was many drugs that they tried to give me and things just didn’t work in my body like they do in everyone else’s,” Williams said. 

Her situation grew more complicated with her diabetes diagnoses, her first heart attack at age 41 and several bouts with the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

“We’ve gotten to the point now where I’m down to only a few [medications] that I am able to take, so that if I get anything very serious it would be very hard for me to get over it,” Williams said.

Bixler’s father, who has an autoimmune-based lung disease and recently underwent a transplant, is in a similarly precarious situation. 

“He’s on so, so much immune-suppressing drugs right now because he’s in pre-rejection, and has been in and out of rejection since his transplant, [so much] that I can’t even be around him,” Bixler said. “I can’t even see him with a mask, with gloves on.”

While Williams and Bixler’s father are able to stay home, Bixler is still working 40 hours a week. She is one of many young people classified as an essential worker.

Early on, her employer, a local grocery store, was forced to make changes to limit the staff’s contact with the public. 

“I had a mask on and I had gloves and I was switching them out,” Bixler said. “I was still just coming into contact with so many people that were just shockingly cavalier and you know, would just be up in your space and were touching groceries.”

Bixler’s anxiety and depression have increased due to working during this time. However, her health worries have also led to a newfound strength in learning to be OK asking for help, she said.

“When you’re the one asking people to do these things for you, it feels like a lot, but your health is so much more important than asking someone to do a grocery run,” Bixler said. “Mitigating all that exposure is so important.”

Bixler said she has had to learn to push her natural tendency to be the first to offer help to others aside and instead be willing to admit that she needs support herself.

Support, according to both women, is key for everyone during this time.

“Picking up the telephone and just saying ‘hi, how are you?’ or sending a text, it doesn’t have to be a long conversation,” Williams said. 

The best way to be supportive, Williams added, is to take care of yourself first so that you don’t unintentionally put someone else at risk. 

“I think it’s important that you take every precaution that you need to take in order to not catch it or give it to someone else,” Williams said.

The CDC now advises that everyone wear a facial covering when out in public, advice Bixler said she hopes people take to heart.

“It’s one thing for people to protect themselves, but it’s another thing for people to be thinking of other people and protecting them,” Bixler said.

Bixler added that you can’t tell if someone is immunocompromised based on appearances, making following CDC guidelines important for everyone. 

 “Even if you’re a healthy young adult and you’re not near as at risk,” Bixler said. “If you find yourself frustrated with how stringent things are or how much your lifestyle has changed, I hope that people can find peace knowing that there are people, like me that are 25 and can’t go anywhere because we’re high risk.”

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