When Dr. Thomas Luft got a stuffy nose in June, he didn't think much of it at first.
Luft, a doctor of internal medicine at UnityPoint Health Pekin East, initially chalked it up to allergies. But when his antihistamines didn't kick in, he called employee health. Luft was on paid time off when he noticed the symptoms, but employee health still recommended he get tested for COVID-19.
"To my surprise, it came back positive," he said.
For the first week after receiving the positive result, Luft continued to suffer from what felt like a minor case of the sniffles. But that changed almost without warning.
"I was sitting down to dinner with my family one Sunday, and felt OK, but within minutes, I was in big trouble," he said. "I was very short of breath, and had to go down to the emergency room right away."
Luft was hospitalized for several days. Lying in a hospital bed, his thoughts went not only to his family, but also to his patients.
"I have been in medicine for 15 years, and taken care of patients in critical condition before," Luft said. "Those patients started to go through my mind. And I was worried about people having conversations with my family like I've had to have with people that have died, or passed away, or were critical."
Unlike many patients, Luft said he never developed a fever. He gradually recovered after he was put on oxygen and given an IV course of remdesivir, an experimental COVID-19 treatment.
But even 10 weeks after experiencing his first symptoms, recovering, and getting the all-clear to return to work, he still doesn't feel entirely like his old self.
"I still get some minor shortness of breath," Luft said. "Obviously, I'm back at work, and doing typical things. But I still can't exercise. I don't have that energy level. I don't have that tolerance yet."
Luft, 44, said he's in good physical shape and has no major underlying health conditions.
"Three or four years ago, the flu went through my family. I got the flu shot, and yet I still got the flu. That was five days of being uncomfortable," Luft said. "This is 10 weeks, and I was hospitalized. I've never been hospitalized before. I've never been short of breath like that before. I've never required oxygen before. So it was significantly worse than the flu."
Luft's son also contracted COVID-19. His wife and daughter were presumed positive, though Luft said he suffered the worst of the symptoms.
Luft said resisting "COVID fatigue" and continuing to exercise vigilance is the key lesson he's taken away from his own experiences.
"We should have that diligence, like we had in the beginning," he said. "And it's something that I think we all need to fight--that pandemic fatigue--and do take it seriously. A lot of people do OK with it. It's easy to look in the media and say, it's not as bad. But there's no telling. It could be anybody who has an experience like I did and got really sick."
Luft said that includes basic mitigation measures like continuing to wear masks, socially distancing, and practicing basic good hygiene habits like frequent hand-washing.
He said that's especially true as he treats more COVID patients in the community.
"Back in June, I didn't see many people in the clinic that were diagnosed. They were few and far between. Now I'm seeing it a lot," he said. "So the numbers not only on the charts and on the news are increasing. I'm personally seeing that increase."
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