05/14/2020 15:58 EDT | Updated 05/14/2020 15:59 EDT

Health-Care Workers Are Sacrificing Everything For Us. My Dad Was One Of Them.

He continued to see patients until he felt too sick to do so.

I was standing outside Peterborough Regional Health Centre on a weekday evening in April. From a distance I heard the ringing of sirens and the honking of horns: first responders, accompanying dozens of local families. They were here to salute the hospital’s front-line health-care workers (HCWs).

My mother and I had to take turns visiting my father due to the hospital’s pandemic-related restrictions. When it was my turn to visit, I rushed to his bedside to tell him, “Dad, look — these people outside are also here for you.”

Courtesy Imran Syed
The author's father, Abu Azhar Syed, worked from home when he became too sick to treat patients in person.

It was true. Up until the week before he was taken to hospital, my dad was a physician specializing in internal medicine, with a focus on pulmonology. Decades earlier, this man wore a hazmat suit to treat suspected SARS patients during the 2003 outbreak. Now, I doubted he could hear me through the sedation and the whir of his ventilator.

Our family’s story is just one of many that are affected, directly or indirectly, by the pandemic. My father was not a COVID-19 patient according to testing at the time. Nonetheless, what happened leading up to his passing demonstrates the strong implications of an emerging new chapter in modern health: one in which treating chronic health conditions is made more difficult by the spread of infectious disease.

My dad didn’t feel well on Christmas Day. He had been experiencing shortness of breath and a persistent cough from reduced lung capacity, either from implications of his pre-existing lung disease or an infection he had contracted from a patient a month earlier. There was little warning that this condition could flare up any further during a pandemic, and no real timeline for his life expectancy. 

The rest of us felt that he at least had more time than he was given.

He loved what he did and felt obligated to work for as long as possible. After critically assessing his disease, he decided that improving the lives of his patients outweighed the personal risk of becoming infected by them.

He continued to see patients until he felt too sick to do so. Finally, he made the difficult choice to close his hospital office before the WHO declared the pandemic. and worked from home with a reduced role. He understood that his lung disease would make it addedly hard for him to recover from any infection, especially COVID-19. It is becoming more apparent every day how COVID-19 disproportionally affects elderly patients, as well as those with predisposing factors. He hoped to return this summer after recovering, and if the pandemic had passed. The rest of us felt that he at least had more time than he was given.

Months later, he too became a patient, and his condition — one that he previously treated professionally — soon grew in severity. 

Courtesy Imran Syed
A picture of the author with his dad in the 1990s.

I received the call in the evening on Tuesday, March 24. He told my two older sisters and I that he would be placed on a ventilator and tested for COVID-19. This was something he did not expect after a career specializing in lung disease, but he hoped that he was just suffering from an acute infection that could regress.

Several days later, my dad’s COVID-19 test came back negative. However, it was clear the spread of the pandemic had nonetheless taken a toll on his health in other ways.

The health of patients not infected by the virus is still impacted by a strained health-care system — exactly the scenario our country’s collectively trying to avoid by “flattening the curve.” In my father’s case, some diagnostic testing, such as bronchoscopies, could not initially be conducted due to COVID-19 suspicion. These tests can identify a specific bacteria or virus causing an infection, and would have helped create a targeted treatment to help him recover. Similarly, elective organ transplantations — in hindsight, the one option that could have saved him, though it wasn’t on the table — are one of many procedures not being performed due to the pandemic

It’s difficult, but I try not to linger on these details.

Courtesy Imran Syed
A photo of the author's father and sisters in the 1980s.

My dad officially passed away from “community-acquired pneumonia,” from a suspected non-COVID infection, with implications of his lung disease. He was 63. Only 10 people were allowed at his funeral, including clergy and cemetery staff. We compensated by airing a livestream for friends and family around the world. My dad’s passing was met by shock from many who knew him.

Travel restrictions meant we couldn’t receive visits or in-person condolences from relatives. Despite this, our family has received prayers, home-cooked meals, and unmeasurable love and support during these past few weeks.

We could not be more proud of the sacrifices he and many like him make each day.

Friends, family and patients alike remembered my father as an athlete. Others knew him as an author after reading his books on spirituality (both firstand second of which are available online, with proceeds going to charity). One friend knows him as a life-saver who stepped in when they had a medical emergency on a golfing trip. But to my siblings and I, he was someone else.

To us, he was Dad. Whether it was teaching us how to swim, swing a golf club for the first time, or how to take a heartbeat with his stethoscope — he was always hoping to raise us to be our best selves. The last time he was ever able to talk to us, he made sure to let us know that “we had all done well” and that “he had no regrets.”

Our lives will never be the same regardless of how this pandemic continues to unfold, and whatever the “new normal” is for most people. We feel the brunt of my father’s sacrifice in serving the community. But it is this reason, among many others, that we could not be more proud of the sacrifices he and many like him make each day.

Many HCWs still put themselves at risk on the front lines. Even with initial concerns for personal protective equipment shortage when this outbreak began, they continued to serve, and our family could not be more grateful for them. 

We hope these heroes see their country mobilize behind them as they fill the same responsibilities that my dad once had.

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