By: Stu Smith

As our society attempts to grapple with the collective medical horrors created by COVID-19, there is one group among us remaining particularly vulnerable. Those individuals suffering from chronic and/or disabling medical conditions justifiably feel the threat this disease presents much more acutely than the majority of healthy individuals. The fragile health of those with serious conditions such as chronic disease often creates a heightened emotional state when faced with the possibility of confronting any additional threat to their health, such as COVID-19 presents.

From a psychological perspective, COVID-19 possesses great potential to impact the quality of life of those suffering from chronic medical conditions. Patients suffering from long-standing medical problems have struggled, often for years, to develop a reliable human support system in an effort to avoid the emotional devastation so often accompanying the social isolation which many face.

This is not to suggest that we do not all feel anxiety related to the potentially harmful impact of COVID-19, but for those dealing with the limitations imposed on them by their particular condition the immediate personal danger remains considerably more significant than for those in good health. This group of vulnerable individuals has usually experienced considerable physical pain from their disease. Many have also been forced to deal with significant constraints affecting their capacity to manage normal physical tasks. COVID-19 has severely threatened the sense of personal well-being generated by regular healthy social interaction. Thus, diminished social engagement can prove as damaging as the physical threat COVID-19 presents.

I have been my wife’s caregiver for the past decade. She was diagnosed with two potentially disabling and incurable conditions at the age of 54. Over this period of time, my wife and I have confronted challenges both physical and emotional. We have sought help from numerous medical professionals across the country, in an effort to effectively manage her symptoms. Since there is no cure for either condition, we are determined to do everything in our power not to allow her medical problems to define our lives and the quality of our daily existence. This has required taking risks with our limited resources and at times, engaging in treatment with significant levels of risk to her fragile physical system. While this approach, in the final analysis, would pay off in the long run, in the short term our lives are often filled with fear and anxiety. Since her neck surgery in 2018, we have had the incredible luxury of relative emotional security based upon our enhanced capacity to effectively manage her symptoms.

Over the years, we have adapted to her disabling conditions, thus allowing us to engage in a relatively active social life. Despite these positive developments, our lives significantly have diminished opportunities for the type of rewarding and enjoyable activities that were once so much a part of our lives. We have attempted to adapt to our losses by developing new activities and interests, allowing for a quality of life which at times, we never thought would be possible again.

Despite our relative success in maintaining some sense of normalcy,  COVID-19  and the danger it presents have proven to be incredibly anxiety-provoking. Clearly, all members of society have felt the impact of this virus. Those suffering from physical disabilities or other significant chronic medical conditions have been greatly impacted by the threat of this illness at a much more intense level, particularly in the context of limits placed on their social interaction. Most individuals suffering from chronic medical conditions have often been forced, by their individual circumstances, to dramatically alter their lifestyles. These changes can often lead to an unhealthy degree of social isolation. COVID-19 now requires individuals to further restrict their social interaction.

The physical threat posed by this virus, along with the state/government regulations reducing social interactions, has increased stress and anxiety levels among the medically compromised often with extremely detrimental consequences. The resulting isolation may prove incredibly harmful to emotional well-being, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. The patient’s caregiver, particularly if a loved one, may experience emotional anguish which accompanies seeing your loved one suffer.

There appears to be little doubt that individual communities, and the nation as a whole, could have been much better prepared to react to this extremely contagious disease. As so often is the case with a medical event of such great magnitude, those with pre-existing conditions are impacted the most. As a society, we have the responsibility to pay careful attention to those with special needs when disaster strikes. Those medical researchers who make it their career to study infectious diseases have warned us of the inevitable ability of the emergence of similar viruses, perhaps in the not too distant future. We need to be more prepared for the next such medical event and pay special attention to the most vulnerable among us.

Stuart Smith is the co-director for Medical Cannabis Advocacy for U.S. Pain Foundation, along with his wife, Ellen, who lives with two rare conditions. Stu has and continues to be Ellen’s caregiver and together, they raise awareness surrounding invisible pain and the effectiveness of medicinal marijuana for pain patients. Ellen and Stu live in Rhode Island and have raised four sons and enjoy their five grandchildren.