The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

Fear of the unknown

Joe Cassar Sunday, 26 April 2020, 08:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.” Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym

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It all started by chance, today I say thank God for that. Since the beginning of the scare of the COVID-19 infection, which later became a pandemic and has so far infected nearly three million people and killed nearly 200,000, my family and I took all necessary precautions, and I must say, in a very obsessive way to make sure we stay safe.

We stuck to social distancing religiously and whoever of us four could stay home’ did. Of course, my eldest daughter and I both work in the psychiatry department at Mater Dei Hospital and our duty is to stay close to the sick and needy. Being obsessional here did not help much.

Alas, on Sunday April 5, my daughter receives a phone call in the afternoon from the public health department asking her to go and get tested and to subsequently start a 14-day quarantine period as one of the patients she had seen two days earlier, turned out COVID-19 positive.

A squeamish inner voice told me since your daughter works with you and lives in the same household, why dont you just get swabbed as well?” Arrangements were made for my swabbing and that of my daughter.  We set out for an afternoon swab followed by my daughter checking in at her grandmothers summer residence for her to start her quarantine.

Lo and behold, as fate would have it, and thankfully so, my daughters results turned out negative but alas I tested positive for the virus! Positive?...No symptoms whatsoever, how could that be?” I ruminated all through that during the first night, trying to understand what had just happened. At home we were all in disbelief and lived through those first hours and days with a feeling like our minds and bodies had been disconnected.

A few days later, some very enlightening studies emerged from different parts of the world most prominently a study from Iceland. This particular study revealed how vast amounts of people out there are asymptomatic carriers of the virus and many are unaware of it!

And so on Monday April 6 2020, an unprecedented experience started for me for me.  Three weeks in self-isolation to protect my wife and youngest daughter. Three weeks, like I had never lived or imagined before. Two weeks locked in a room circa 4mx4m, alone with my books and laptop. A queasy feeling, all psychological of course but very real, that all that I had read about COVID-19 will befall me. And another week in quarantine.

Then, in a flash, I recalled a continued medical education video my wife and I had recorded a week before for a COVID-19 CME professional programme. There was my answer. Practice what you preach, Dr Cassar”. Today I look back on these twenty-one days of my COVID-19 positive asymptomatic experience, and I sincerely have to admit, they were a God-send. Never before had I experienced such peace in my heart. I re-discovered the balance of a normal days experience which unfortunately I had lost, like many others, in the so called advanced 21st century hectic consumeristic world.

I deeply cherished the possibility of having time to nurture my spiritual needs. My daily meditation consisted of sacred moments with God; I followed Mass and said the Rosary. This was extremely helpful in my case, as it helped me live through my unique experience with major inner peace and tranquility.

When it came to my weekly exercise schedule, this, I must admit, I suffered immensely. The best compromise was for me to complete one thousand daily steps in the very limited space available. This saw me complete only ten percent of my daily 12,000-step requirement. Food on the other hand, oh, there was no lack of that, I assure you. The abundance of love shown by my wife and youngest daughter in the culinary department made me feel so blessed Their time in quarantine also opened a lot of doors to culinary experimentation. This experiment was a paramount achievement.

During the day, I also managed in a very balanced way to do some telepsychiatry work with some of my patients. I must say mental health issues have been increasing exponentially and finding time whilst in isolation to help my patients was a definite fulfilling experience. I appreciate greatly the suffering out there and the massive stress this pandemic is causing to humanity!

As to reading, I thought I would manage to read at least three books but alas I only managed one, The Churchill Factor, how one man made history,” written by none other than Boris Johnson who I must say is a very eloquent writer. To be sincere, very little time was left for me to watch TV as by the time I used to switch it on I would fall asleep.

At this stage, the reader must be saying, why did he name the article, the ‘fear of the unknown’ then?”  Admittedly, throughout my experience the fear of the unknown loomed constantly in the background. Scary real-life images that had been sprawled all over the media for weeks on end invaded my every moment of the day and night, getting me to question incessantly, what if this happens to me?” “What if I end up on a ventilator?” “What if I die?”

Reality is what it is and our humanity naturally gets us to precipitate towards self-preservation, getting us to fear for our lives. The way this fear is tackled is a very personal experience and albeit there is a myriad of books giving one advice on how to tackle fear, getting to grips with fear will depend on ones personal emotional armamentarium. Personally, my relationship with God, the love of my family and the desire to live got me to fight the thoughts voraciously.

In conclusion, funnily enough these three weeks in self isolation were a truly positive experience. An experience of nurturing my spiritual life and relationship with God. An experience of daily thanksgiving for the formidable unique family I am bestowed with. An experience of discovering real work-life balance. An experience of understanding who really cares. An experience of humility and a better understanding of human nature. A real understanding of what matters in this world while appreciating the fact that, humanity is messing up its priorities big time.

May this chapter in our lives get us to see the real meaning of life, to evaluate the worldly greed and the short-lived pleasures for worldly useless short-lived extravagances. 

I hold each and every one of us but especially those who are fearful and suffering, in my heart each day.

Godspeed to us all

Joe Cassar is a former Health Minister and a psychiatrist by profession
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