By Jessica Dortch
AFRO Production Editor
#AFROCoversCOVID

Dr. James E. Wood is a physician who was exposed to the Coronavirus by way of a family member in late July. Days later he tested positive and entered a fight unlike anything he’d experienced in his years. As a survivor, Dr. Wood outlined his experience with the disease and gives advice to those who still think that COVID-19 is a myth. 

AFRO: What led you to be tested for COVID-19?

Dr. Wood: Well, added exposure. We’ve been in a very tight bubble for the last five to six months. I came to D.C. for an FDA meeting; my wife came in for another reason and my daughter came in because she had a wedding, so we were all around the Baltimore-D.C. area. Then things started shutting down. I was on my way back to Memphis, my daughter was on her way back to California and all of a sudden we decided that if things were shutting down, then we should all try to find a way to stay together as a unit. Fortunately, we have a home here, so we had a place to stay.

James E. Wood Jr., M.D.
(Courtesy photo)

We’ve been hunkered down, so people rarely come into our space except for family members. My son, who travels a lot, gets tested and quarantines before he comes into contact with folks, and he had done just that. After he finished his testing and quarantine, he decided to get a haircut somewhere around the 24th or 25th of July. In the next few days, he had a little “sniffles;” then he had fatigue and was extremely tired. He also had a little bit of a headache with a cough and scratchy throat. By the middle of the week he decided to get tested. After he got tested, he called me and told me that his test came back positive. He had spent time with us earlier that week, and I thought that was interesting because I woke up with a headache, which is an unusual symptom for me, and a little bit of a scratchy throat. 

Getting tested wasn’t an easy situation. I had plenty of insurance, but it just wasn’t an easy situation to immediately go in and get tested. I called my primary care doctor and she checked around and advised me to either go into the emergency room and tell them that I was experiencing symptoms, or go to a rapid testing location in Columbia, which is what my wife and I did. We did both the rapid tests, which is really nice because they test you in your car, and we did the preliminary chain reaction test which takes a couple of days. Even if the rapid test is negative there is still an arbitrage of about 16 percent between those two. I ended up testing positive while my wife tested negative. They ran her PCR and it was still negative. I don’t think they got a good swab because she did end up losing her taste, but she never tested positive. 

But then I got sick. My son, of course, tested positive and his wife tested positive. Two days after I had an interaction with my son and his family, my daughter and her boyfriend tested positive, the au pair who helps take care of my 2-year-old grandson tested positive, and my grandson tested positive. 

Everyone has pretty much recovered fully, but at 70 years of age, I am the one who really got the brunt of it. I went through the stages of progression with those symptoms, and I know that at about nine days post exposure, that’s when the rubber meets the road and the virus really takes off in your body and creates havoc. 

AFRO: What was the mental aspect of your diagnosis?

Dr. Wood: As a physician and as someone paying strict attention to this; I get it. I understand what this virus is, what it does and what it’s capable of doing. I am very close to monitoring the signs and I’m plugged into my medical provider. We began outlining contingency plans, so the “ABC’s” of what I am supposed to do if this or that happens. My liability is asthma, so I’ve had pulmonary issues my entire life, and I am not afraid of low PO2. I know what it is and what it feels like. I know how to clear my lungs, so I am not in a situation where anxiety is something that worries me, but it doesn’t stop me from getting to a point where there are dark moments. Your mind thinks about those dark moments, like what if this or that happens, so I paid attention to certain things, and if those things started showing up then I would have to execute my plan. I had to keep in mind what I’ve got to do next to protect myself and my family, and so I was involved in all of that.

AFRO: What role did your faith and your family play in helping you overcome? 

Dr. Wood: Well you know, you’ve always got to keep your faith. There’s so much unknown in this, and you recognize very quickly the things you can and cannot control. So your faith says, “Is this my time?” I’ve asked myself that question before on several occasions throughout my life; at times around respiratory issues, whether it be a severe allergic reaction or a very severe asthmatic attack and things like that. You’re breathing shallowly, you can’t talk and all you’re doing is just concentrating on moving air and hoping that whatever got you to this point doesn’t progress any further. So it does come to those levels of unrest.

AFRO: What was the most challenging aspect of the disease for you? 

Dr. Wood: The symptoms are real and profound, and it’s so crazy to be an observer as the disease hijacks your body. It takes over your body function: your cells can’t metabolize like they are supposed to, so everything you try to do, your cells react like something’s got a hold on them. It doesn’t let you think straight, breathe well or regulate your temperature. I had really deep chills. Even with blankets, sweaters and heaters, I was just freezing. You wake up in this profound sweat where all of your bed clothes are wet and you could take your t-shirt off and just wring it out because that’s how much sweat is coming from your body. Everything is a challenge, even getting up and sitting at my desk for an hour to take a phone call or a meeting, I would just feel like I needed to go lay back down. Not only would I go lay back down, but I would go back to sleep for about four to five hours, then I’d wake up and go right back to sleep. There were a couple of days where I just slept. How do you reconcile that? 

At the same time, how do you have confidence to know that you’re still in a good space? That’s where the monitoring comes in, where you are paying attention to your temperature, your appetite, your pulse and your pulse oximeter. You’re looking at how you are carrying oxygen in your body, you want to see how your heart is doing so you’re measuring your pulse; you’re checking your body temperature about every three to four hours to note changes and you’re being very diligent so that way you can have metrics that you follow to gain an understanding of when you should actually go to the hospital. 

AFRO: Was dealing with the disease at your home something that you outlined with your healthcare provider? 

Dr. Wood: As we came to six or seven days, I was having profound symptoms, but I was following my pulse oximeter, and I was still oxygenating well. My temperature was not going above 99.4 or 99.6. I did not have difficulty breathing so I could still sing and speak clearly without being out of breath. Even though I had severe muscle pain, body aches and chills, Tylenol was still able to intercede when it came to that, so I still had an element of control. Day seven to eight, my temperature started going up to 100 degrees to 100.8, and it even hit 101 degrees. At that time, I was still having these profound symptoms, and I felt like the virus had hijacked my body. I hadn’t done anything to take my immune system down, like taking steroids or antibiotics and so I was at that point where I could go one way or the other. 

My primary care doctor suggested that I get in my car and come to the hospital to be evaluated and get chest x-rays to make sure there was no pneumonia. I could feel that I didn’t have pneumonia because I had a productive cough that enabled me to move secretions throughout the illness. Pneumonia typically develops when you can’t move secretions, so when the airways are blocked, pneumonia develops pretty quickly behind that. In my initial plans, my primary care doctor and I talked about when I should start steroids that have been shown to work to get some of the inflammatory issues under control. We agreed that I’d use steroids, but if there were any changes in PO2, or if I had any difficulty breathing or anything like that I would get in the car and drive to Johns Hopkins. She didn’t want me to wait until I’d have to call an ambulance, because they would take me to the closest hospital, and in this situation you want to be working with the absolute best people who are managing patients with this disease who have all of the background, research and metrics to monitor this disease. Don’t leave it to chance and know when it is time to move. 

AFRO: How has your outlook on life and your view of the disease changed since your diagnosis? 

Dr. Wood: It is real. It is very real. For a moment there you are looking at behavior that could possibly end your life. I’m African American. I’m 70 years of age, and I’d like to think that I’m in good shape with a healthy immune system. Just recently, we lost my good friend Binx Watts who was also in pretty good shape, but he was also alone. We have to think about what decisions were made, who was he talking to and if we could have interceded early on if we had known. My outlook on life has been very straightforward, especially in acknowledging that nothing is promised. Working in the medical field, I’ve seen miraculous things work both ways: I’ve seen people say when it’s time to go home, it’s time to go; but I’ve also seen people say that it’s not their time. My mother used to always say when I was younger that she’s not worried about me because God has a plan for me and it’s not my time. 

AFRO: What is your message for those who aren’t wearing masks and social distancing? 

Dr. Wood: Like I said before, my son got his haircut and that’s where he thinks his exposure was because his barber actually died from the disease. His barber had socially distanced, he ran his shop pretty tightly, he wore a mask, but he was still meeting the public. As a surgeon we wear masks all the time and there is nothing more relieving than taking the mask off after a long day, so it’s not easy. A lot of people are playing the Russian roulette game. I could’ve been in that category where I could’ve gotten really sick and even died. I was closer than any of my cohorts to having to face that reality. 

You never know: you can’t see it, you may not even feel it, and it’s a real drag. I think that getting fresh air, staying as far apart as you can and reminding each other that it is in our best interest to do so will flatten the curve. If you are going to be around people, if you are going to be in a store, or around someone who is cleaning, they are doing vital work that you need, so you should at least give them the courtesy of protecting them from you. What the World Health Organization (WHO) is saying now is that it’s the 20 to 40 year olds who seem to be the ones who are spreading the virus at this point. They are blaming that age group and of course it’s the 60 to 80 year olds that are feeling the brunt of it. My message to them is that you have a home with people you love and you need to be cognizant of that. There is going to be some element of immunity down the line, and we are getting better treatment as we are getting a better understanding of the phases this disease takes us through. So we are getting smarter with how we are taking care of people.