COVID-19 survivor helps others
Dr. Katie Burden-Greer shares a message of hope and reaffirmation during a trying time
February 11, 2021
ADA, Okla. – After driving her sick mother to the hospital, Dr. Katie Burden-Greer, chief of inpatient medicine for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health, started having her own symptoms of COVID-19 in late November 2020.
"At first it was body aches, fever, chills, just generally feeling ill. A few days later, I lost my taste, I lost my smell, and it was the strangest thing. Everything I put in my mouth tasted like water, just no flavor at all," she said.
She soon started having trouble breathing and developed a cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. She felt she could not catch her breath after walking across the room.
Nine days in, and her oxygen levels dipped, causing Dr. Burden-Greer to rely on inhalers and special posturing to open up her lungs. It was a technique she sometimes used with patients at the hospital. Laying them on their stomach, prone, relieves some pressure on the lungs and allows the air sacs within the lungs to fully inflate.
She was able to avoid being hospitalized and return to work after ample quarantining and recovery. Fatigue was still an issue, and fulfilling breaths were out of reach.
"I'm much better and very thankful it wasn't any worse, but I'm still not quite 100 percent," she said.
As a silver lining, Dr. Burden-Greer gained a deeper understanding of the illness and has channeled it into more thorough and mindful care for her patients. She said she knows specific questions to ask now, pulling information patients might not know to share at first.
Back at the medical center and thankful for her health, Dr. Burden-Greer found new challenges.
A trying time
Dr. Burden-Greer said right now the disease is more active than it has been throughout the entire pandemic. The Chickasaw Nation Medical Center (CNMC) is among the nation's hospitals having to put two beds into one room to be able to care for the number of patients coming in.
"The entire hospital's team, the physicians, the physicians assistants, respiratory therapy, nurse practitioners, nurses, everybody – we're getting worn down. We're tired. We are hanging in there the best we can, because we know we are here for our patients," she said.
But, she said, there is a sense of defeat when seeing patients struggle for weeks or months, and they may not make it.
"Right now, the absolute worst part I would say of medicine in general, is having to call a loved one and tell them that their family member passed away, and that is true now more than ever," she said. "It's happening now more than it ever has before in my life, and it's horrible to be that person that calls and tells them the terrible news. I've done it over and over and over again."
As a doctor, Dr. Burden-Greer aims to take care of the body using medicine. She said she also wants to be there for patients and their families as a person, able to sympathize and comfort.
"You know, there have been times where I prayed with families, I sang hymns with families. Once we've exhausted all of our medical resources, we often come to a time where we know that the patient is not going to survive, and I want their passing to be as peaceful as possible," she said.
"When we have a patient that's struggling, and we're right there with them doing everything we can to try to make them better, and when there's nothing humanly possible to make them better, we share in the struggle. I mean, I think every member of my hospital's team has cried every day at work," she said.
Hope and reaffirmation
Dr. Burden-Greer and her colleagues cling to the positives, small victories and personal or shared good news. Having survived the disease, she has a handful of personal positive reminders.
"Just taking a deep breath is something to be thankful for. You know, being with your family is something to be thankful for. Having a dog cuddle on you, that's something to be thankful for. All the little things I try to remind myself about so that I can focus on the positive instead of all the negative," Dr. Burden-Greer said.
At work, there's also a sense of shared relief every time their efforts pay off for a patient.
"I would say when our very first patient to survive intubation from COVID-19 was able to go home, that was such a huge collective celebration. I'm never going to forget that," she recalled. "It took an army to get this man better, and he got to walk out of the hospital. It was just such a moving moment. I think there wasn't a dry eye in the house."
The CNMC had a third patient survive COVID-19 intubation recently, and Dr. Burden-Greer was among the faculty and staff who happily saw her off. Experiences like that, she said, allow health care workers to focus on the good their work brings about.
"I thank God we have a great team of nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists – everybody that's under the roof of the hospital is doing their absolute best and working together to try to get people better," she said. "We know that if we don't get up and go to work, there's no one left to do it."
Through all of the death and suffering, she said her faith has gotten stronger. "Especially with the miracles I've witnessed, I mean, we're never going to know why one person gets a miracle and another one doesn't. Maybe one of these days we'll know why, when we get to heaven and can ask ourselves. But everybody has a different perspective. Mine is reaffirmation."
She also had some advice to share.
"I want everyone to stay vigilant, avoid crowds, wear your mask, wash your hands and as soon as it's available to you, get the vaccine, because that's our biggest hope to try and move past this," Dr. Burden-Greer said.