What It’s Like to Live With a Susceptible Immune System During a Pandemic

It started off as a faraway, somewhat far-fetched concept. In January, while aimlessly perusing a news app on my phone, I spotted a piece by The New York Times detailing the curious new coronavirus that had recently emerged in China. As the research junkie and mild hypochondriac that I am, I promptly inhaled the 1500-word article and went on to read multiple others, phrases like “fear of epidemic” and “transmission route” imprinting in my brain. 

I started bringing up the new coronavirus in conversation, curious to find out what others had heard about it so far. “Scientists are saying it rapidly mutates,” I rattled off to my boyfriend. “It’s already spreading beyond our control.” 

As always, he was basically unconcerned. “Calm down,” he said. “Every virus rapidly mutates. You can’t believe everything you read.” To be fair, I’d been similarly alarmed when the Zika virus outbreak and Ebola were making headlines too. Illness is not something to take lightly— but this time felt different and worse than before. As I watched COVID-19 cases spread around the globe, steadily climbing in numbers and death tolls, I started to grasp just how widespread — and personally dangerous — this could become. Unfortunately, not everyone else has absorbed that message yet.

I’ve started washing my hands excessively, even after opening the fridge or touching my steering wheel. I Lysol my desk daily. It might seem excessive, but I’ve been seriously anxious about the possibility of contracting COVID-19, even as a young, healthy person with a strong immune system and a nutrient-rich diet. And I’ve taken my health for granted until now. So many other young adults are dealing with chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. How must they be feeling right now? And for those of us who don't know any better, how should we adjust our behavior to decrease their risk of exposure?

Because I’m very close to someone who is immunocompromised, I decided to ask and get advice. My former roommate, Emily, shares her experience below and how everyone can be more conscious of safety right now.

Her Campus: Can you explain the details of your autoimmune disease?

Emily: I was diagnosed with Behcet’s and Celiac disease just under a year ago. Celiac is simple to treat; all I have to do is avoid eating gluten. Behcet’s, on the other hand, is a rare autoimmune disease where my immune system attacks my blood vessels and damages them in the process. 

The only way to stop my immune system from attacking me is being on an immunosuppressant that makes my immune system weak so it can’t attack me anymore. This means I am extremely susceptible to illnesses and my body has trouble fighting off infections.

HC: How did you feel when COVID-19 started spreading?

E: When the coronavirus started, I wasn’t too worried. I already practice good hygiene due to having a compromised immune system. When it did start growing, I did start getting more concerned. I can practice good hygiene, but other people I work with daily and interact with might not. So, I am kind of scared with this whole thing, but I just am trying to stay positive and do my part to make sure I am washing my hands and keeping good hygiene.

HC: Are you personally concerned about how this might impact your safety?

E: I would love to say I am not worried about it, but truly speaking, who isn’t? I am trying to stay positive, but there is always going to be that fear. But then again, I always have the fear of getting sick; the coronavirus is just another thing to worry about.

HC: What measures are you taking to stay safe right now?

E: I am just making sure to wash my hands as often as I can, not touch my face, make sure I am wiping stuff down in my house. I am trying to avoid touching gas pumps, door handles, ATMS and carts at grocery stores.

HC: Do you feel like it's important for people to practice social distancing around you?

E: I personally always want people around, so I am just limiting how many people I am exposing myself to at a time and being extra careful who is around me.

HC: What’s something you wish other people knew about having a compromised immune system?

E: I wish other people would understand that it is a serious thing. That when I am washing my hands before and after my break at work and not touching door handles, it’s not because I’m some germ-crazy person, it’s because I have to be that way. I also wish people would stay home when they are sick. They don’t realize how scary it is for someone like me when they go outside sick. Touching everything I am touching, not covering their mouths the proper way. It just puts me on high alert and makes me more careful about washing my hands and using hand sanitizer, even wearing gloves.

 

This is a scary time for everyone. But for some of us, COVID-19 is more than a case of the flu. It’s important to understand what this virus could mean for my friend Emily, or for anyone with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible. You may not think you’re vulnerable, but this is about more than each of us now, it’s about all the other people we come into contact with.

If you’re a young person who has been taking your immune system for granted, it’s time to be more cautious, more considerate and more humble — for your own sake, yes, but more importantly, to protect those around you. Stay safe, be hygienic and practice social distancing. We’re in this together now.