What It’s Like to be Hospitalized During the Pandemic—Without COVID-19

In January 2020, none of us knew what this year would bring, especially not Eli Robbins.

Eli Robbins is 31 years old and lives in South Philadelphia. In February he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells. If left untreated, Guillain-Barre causes weakness, numbness and tingling that can quickly lead to paralysis. Thankfully, Eli noticed symptoms early, went to the emergency room where he received a spinal tap and was admitted as an inpatient on the neurology floor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where Dr. Tim Ambrose led his care plan.

Everyone at Jefferson was so pleasant and positive—the physicians, the residents, the med students, the nurses, the CNAs, the cleaning staff. It made a huge difference for the five or six days that I was there. —Eli Robbins

Eli’s care team used intravenous immunoglobulin to treat him and then discharged him to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where his symptoms started getting worse once again. “It was a dark time emotionally for me,” Eli says. He was almost completely paralyzed in his legs and arms and had various levels of mobility throughout his stay at Jefferson.

A plasma exchange treatment proved successful for Eli, and on March 9, he returned home. Just a few days later, Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order began.

Eli’s Second Hospital Stay—During the Pandemic

A few weeks into his quarantine, Eli began exhibiting symptoms again. He recalls, “Being paralyzed before and then backsliding and losing function was pretty devastating.” He had to be admitted as an inpatient again, this time during a rapidly growing pandemic.

Eli with his newborn son at the hospital

Eli with his newborn baby son during his stay at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Jefferson was still operating at full force, with increased health and safety measures in place to make sure that every patient could still access the best care possible.

Although the idea of contracting the coronavirus was scary, Eli says he felt at ease with the staff and was impressed by how cautious everyone was. “When I stayed at the hospital before the pandemic, I never really thought about how heroic these medical professionals are. Even when a crisis was happening, I never felt ignored, and I always felt like I was getting 110% from the team,” Eli says. He realized how every member of the team was at risk for infection but that they still showed up to work every day to help people.

After staying for one night, his care team decided to give him the rest of his treatments as an outpatient.

Eli noticed how supportive and positive his whole care team was throughout such a serious time. “I was blown away by how normal everyone acted during my treatment. They didn’t let me know that things were abnormal, even in the face of something so existential and scary. It just gave me faith in humanity,” he says.

Magee’s Healing Staff

Once Eli completed his treatment, he started working with the staff at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital once again, where he not only received physical care and rehabilitation but also mental and emotional support. “There’s the physical part of Guillain-Barre, but there’s also the emotional anguish that I went through being stuck in a wheelchair with limited mobility,” he shares. The team at Magee understood his need to heal in multiple ways.

Eli with outpatient therapist

Eli with outpatient therapist Shelby Hankins after a rehab cooking session.

Magee gave him many different beneficial forms of therapy. In addition to occupational and physical therapy, Eli received art therapy and music therapy, which he said saved his soul. “I couldn’t use my body the way I used to, so being able to play music felt really important to me. It allowed me to part from those feelings of inadequacy. I still have a ukulele they lent me to play,” Eli says.

And now, Eli is feeling the best he has since he was first hospitalized in February. He says, “Other than a little numbness in my toes and a bit of fatigue, I feel pretty much back to normal. It’s amazing that so much can change in such a short period of time.”

Eli with his physical therapist in a rehab session

Part of Eli’s rehab was holding this fake baby as he regained strength. Here he is with Dina Ahrorova, a physical therapist at Magee.

Eli shared that, for the first time in months, he can now take care of himself and his one-year-old son by himself again.

A Thank You to Remember

One big difference for Eli in visiting the hospital before the pandemic and during it? The masks, which are required at all Jefferson Health locations for staff, patients and any visitors.

“The masks felt so significant,” Eli says. “I was being treated by the same team, but I could no longer see their faces.”

“There’s such a tangible community at Jefferson that I felt throughout my whole patient experience,” he adds. “And I really thought about how heroes wear masks. These people are heroes, not just because they show up every day to help people, but also because they’re so diligent and careful in doing so at such a difficult time.”

Eli thank you card

A thank you card designed by Eli.

He thought about this recently, when he passed by a Jefferson Health location and saw the Jefferson logo on some flags outside. It inspired him to create some artwork as a thank you to his whole care team. He used a woodcut and digital design tools to create his artwork and print it on thank you cards that he delivered to his team on the last day of treatment.

The thank you card—which features a face partially covered by the Jefferson J shield—reads: “Heroes wear masks.”

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COVID-19, Patient Perspectives

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