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I’m a Doctor Who Got the Flu. Here’s What I Learned.

By Anuradha Rao-Patel | February 10, 2020 | Health & Wellness, Healthy Lifestyle

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To confirm what you already knew, yes, doctors also get sick. We’re flesh and blood, subject to the same bumps, bruises, and maladies as anybody else. And we contract influenza just like you.

“Flu” is a word that gets tossed around pretty casually these days. When you hear that someone is “out with the flu,” it doesn’t necessarily mean they caught the influenza virus. They’ve probably come down with a bad cold, some unidentified virus or infection. So it’s often more correct to say they have “flu-like symptoms.”

But when my daughter woke up for school one day and said she wasn’t feeling well, her symptoms were straight from an influenza checklist.

Within a couple of days, she was diagnosed with the flu – the legit flu – and like dominoes falling in perfect order, so were her brother, her father and me. We were a family united in discomfort.

I didn’t really need a reminder of the frailty of the mortal frame, but I learned and confirmed a few other things from the two weeks of utter misery our household endured.

1 – Having the flu stinks.

I’ve had the flu before and I’ve had patients with the flu, so I was already aware of just how awful it feels to be that sick. Still, we tend to have a fairly short memory when it comes to the details of that kind of illness.

Not only was I sick myself, but I also had two children and a husband dealing with the same thing. I gave them all the care I could muster, but it’s not an exaggeration to call this an ordeal. As this was the first time I’ve had the flu since I completed my residency, I felt the added pressure of: “Physician, heal thy family.”

It was two weeks I wouldn’t want to repeat. But walking a mile in the shoes of some of my patients again was a good reminder of the importance of empathy in medicine.

2 – You can’t will yourself through the flu.

I am not lacking in self-confidence. I am proud of myself as a person, as a parent and as a doctor. So I wasn’t eager to admit the flu is bigger than me. But my medical training and my clinical work experience were mostly useless against this particular foe.

I was reminded that the flu doesn’t care who you are, what your job is, what commitments you might have. It knocks you flat on your back – and that’s where you should stay until you recover.

Willpower and determination are important in battling an illness, but ignoring that you’re sick isn’t a good idea for anyone. Showing up sick to the office can pass the flu to a co-worker. Resting in bed to fight the flu isn’t a poor reflection on your character. In fact, it shows good sense.

3 – When you get the flu, you have one job.

Fighting the flu takes a lot of physical and mental energy. When we learned our family had been hit with the flu, my husband and I immediately started working out how to manage what amounted to a family crisis.

After some of the immediate logistics were taken care of, I looked at my work calendar – a long list of projects and meetings that would have to be paused. I even had a speaking engagement on the books. I very reluctantly had to admit that I wouldn’t be well enough to give that speech. A colleague would have to substitute for me.

I hated to back out, but recovering from the flu would require all of my strength, both physical and mental. My first priority was to get myself and my family well again. Everything else would have to wait.

I confess this was the hardest lesson to accept, for both me and my husband. The last words a parent or professional wants to utter are, “I can’t.” But our health has to come first. So it was: “I can’t…right now.”

4. I’m still going to get a flu shot every year.

I know your first thought when you saw the headline of this blog post was, “Well, why didn’t the whole family get their flu shots?”

We did. Sometimes you get the flu anyway. You could be exposed to flu during the two weeks before the vaccination gives you full protection against the virus. Or you could have been exposed to a strain of the virus that’s not covered by the vaccine.

But this doesn’t mean we’re going to skip our flu shots next year. There may be no way to protect yourself 100% against the flu, but a flu shot gets you as close to 100% as possible.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina covers flu shots at no cost for most members. You can get a flu shot at an employer clinic, a doctor’s office or a pharmacy. If you don’t have insurance, most local health departments offer flu shots at varying costs.

For more information about getting a flu shot, visit our website.

Dealing with the flu is a lousy way to learn. But if I get the flu again, I’ll try to make use of my new insights.