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'Everything Broke Loose': A Doctor And COVID-19 Survivor Recalls His Ordeal

Dr. Michael Saag, seen at his clinic at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Art Meripol
Courtesy of Michael Saag
Dr. Michael Saag, seen at his clinic at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

Dr. Michael Saag studies diseases for a living. The epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, specializes in HIV and AIDS research, so he's familiar with the toll a deadly infection can take on the human body.

No amount of study, however, could have adequately prepared him for having the coronavirus himself.

Almost one month ago, Saag and his son, who is also a physician, came down with symptoms of COVID-19 within days of each other. What came next was days of pain, anxiety and repeatedly dashed hope — until, at last, both men recovered fully.

Now, the doctor is looking back on his experiences and trying to glean the lessons he learned as a patient. He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, and on Saturday, he spoke with NPR's Scott Simonto detail his time spent ill.

Here are some excerpts:

Could you tell us about those 14 days? How did you feel, what did you feel?

Everything broke loose. I ended up with fever, chills, headache. By the time the morning arrived, I was better and I could function and think clearly. But then cruelly and relentlessly, the symptoms came back every single day in the late afternoon, and it just repeated itself. It felt a lot like Groundhog Day. I didn't know if each night I would deteriorate and have to go in the hospital, or whether I would survive the night.

This sort of Groundhog Day experience went on all the way through Day 14. So it was literally two weeks after my symptoms started that they disappeared, thankfully.

You tried an unproven remedy [hydroxychloroquineand azithromycin] that some members of the administration seem to believe in

I called at least 10 colleagues around the world, actually, and asked, "What do you think?" And they all said, well, "Go ahead and try it, but we don't have any evidence for it." So I did.

To be honest, I can't tell if it did a hill of beans difference for me. Later, as I looked more into this, I've sort of regretted my decision because these drugs, especially when used together — the hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin — can have electrocardiogram abnormalities, and that puts somebody at risk for sudden death. So in retrospect, I'm a little ashamed of myself that I was so cavalier.

How does this end?

Here's my thought. People are always asking, "Well, when can we let up, go back to life as we used to know it?" And the answer really isn't when; that's the wrong question. The correct question is how — how do we stop the stay-at-home?

My opinion is that if we just, let's say, pick a date — June 1, July 1, it doesn't matter to me. You pick your time when you pull back and you let people return to normal. I don't see how anything has changed from March 1. It's just that we've had a period where we were able to control transmission.

But why would the virus suddenly be different, and why would people's susceptibility be any different on July 1 than it is on March 1?

Rather, I think what we need to do is spend the next two to two and a half months preparing for the release of the stay-at-home restrictions and start aggressive case contact tracing — exactly like we do with tuberculosis, where a new case is identified and quickly a team comes in, tests that individual, gets them into care, gets them isolated. And then do tracing of every individual that has come into contact with them in the last two weeks. And then those individuals, depending on how their tests go, will either get into care if they're positive or be quarantined for another 14 days.

That's what we have to do. If we just release folks back into the community and do what we were doing in February, why would it be any different?

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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