Dr. Matthew Harris sat in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital Colorado in the early hours of March 11 before an overnight shift with a fever, chills, dry cough, aches and trouble breathing.
It can’t be happening to me, Harris thought, totally unaware he would soon fear death.
Harris, 38, is the pediatric emergency medical attending at Children’s in Aurora, and a supervising emergency room doctor. He is a husband and father of 5-year-old twins. He eats well, exercises and easily manages his mild asthma. He had not used a sick day in two years.
But in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, with fewer than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Colorado, Harris couldn’t risk anything. He called his supervisor — Look, I’m sure it’s nothing, I just don’t feel great — checked into Children’s as a patient, self-administered tests for a variety of flu illnesses and drove home.
The tests all came back negative.
“I started to get nervous,” Harris said.
He awoke the next morning with a 102.7-degree temperature, waited nearly three hours at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site, and then another three days to get the result. He experienced incredible fatigue, sleeping 18 hours a day. He still refused to believe he had it. I’m not immunocompromised. The virus just got here. I’m not its target demographic.
The moment Harris got his results back, his wife, Dr. Hillary Yaffe, was drawing blood from a patient at the UCHealth campus in Aurora. Her cell phone kept ringing.
“I couldn’t answer it, so I asked the nurse to pull it out of my back pocket,” Yaffe said. “It was my husband and she said that I needed to call him back urgently. I got blood out of the patient as quickly as I could, and when I picked up my phone, there was a text message.”
Nine words that made her heart sink.
You have to come home now. I’m COVID-19 positive.
You might say Harris was born to help others. His father, Leon, is a critical care doctor. Leon never pushed Matthew into the field, but his son’s path into medicine did not surprise.
Harris said it is a privilege knowing that “somebody’s worst day is my opportunity to have my best day — whether that’s successfully completing a difficult and life-saving procedure, or just having the ability to sit and deliver difficult news knowing those parents are going to remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”
Suddenly, Harris found himself on the opposite side of that talk.
Coronavirus survivor Matthew Harris at his home on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.
After his positive COVID-19 diagnosis, he immediately self-quarantined at his Denver home. Harris managed family life at a safe distance for about three days. His health worsened by the hour, though.
In the early morning of March 18, Harris woke up with what he called “extreme heaviness” in his chest, unlike anything he’d ever felt. He required immediate hospitalization. His mind wandered. Will I ever come home again?
“That was one of the hardest moments in all of this,” Harris said. “I hadn’t hugged my kids in days. I really just wanted to go in and kiss them on the head. I just could not bring myself to do it. … It brought me to tears on the drive to the hospital.”
Their story began in a college dorm hall. That’s where Harris and Yaffe first met as undergraduates at Brandeis University in the fall of 2000, separated by one year and one floor at the small private school in Waltham, Mass.
The pair became fast friends as part of a large group of EMT student volunteers. Their paths split when Harris attended the prestigious Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv, Israel, while Yaffe opted for a different graduate program. But Yaffe’s life changed forever in 2008 when her father needed an emergency liver transplant. She agreed to be the donor. Her father survived, and the experience inspired Yaffe to become a transplant surgeon.
The best school for her medical program? Sackler in Tel Aviv.
“I packed everything I had into two duffle bags and moved halfway around the world,” Yaffe said. “(Harris) was the only person I actually knew in the whole country.”
A friendship blossomed into romance, marriage and a family. Their twins — Benjamin and Ayelet — near their sixth birthday in May with unimaginable circumstances. How do you explain a global pandemic, and a father’s life-threatening illness, to your children?
Yaffe self-isolated with the twins when Harris was admitted into the COVID-19 ward. She struggled to answer innocent questions: Why can’t he give us a hug? When is he coming home? For a while, the twins thought dad was just working or getting medicine: Is the doctor’s office ever going to close?
Harris’ slide deepened.
“I cried more in three days than I have in my adult life,” Harris said. “You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Harris recorded messages for his children. Told his father where he’d like to be buried. Moved all of his money into his wife’s bank account. Yaffe and the twins video-chatted with Harris multiple times per day and shared text messages in between naps. They knew he was scared.
Yaffe, a self-described eternal optimist, kept speaking words of encouragement to her husband: You’re going to be fine. You’re still valuable to us. It’s not your time.
“None of it really made sense to him as a physician and all of those emotions sort of erupted,” Yaffe said. “While he was at the hospital, he said several times that he thought he was going to die.”
A well-intentioned doctor offered up this uncomfortable reality. It’s OK to be anxious. You have a disease that no one has had before in an age group that’s not supposed to be sick.
“That stuck with me,” Harris said.
Dr. Matthew Harris wearing a face mask and shield at work.
The isolation was brutal. Zero in-person contact besides select hospital staff. In pediatrics, his specialty, the slightest personal touch can mean everything to a sick child or nervous parent. Harris longed for the same comfort.
His fever continued for two weeks. Harris focused on basic human functions to fight. Breathe. Drink. Eat. Yaffe and the twins encouraged him to walk, and when Harris found the strength, he moved across his hospital room. Small steps.
“I just had faith that he was going to be OK,” Yaffe said. “I can’t really explain it in more scientific terms. I just knew that he was going to come home.”
In hindsight, Harris considers himself fortunate. He never went on a ventilator. He avoided the intensive care unit. And, after the four scariest days of his life in that hospital bed, Harris made enough progress to be granted release.
“By sheer luck, the grace of God, or whatever you want to call it,” Harris said, “I happened to get better when others like me didn’t.”
Harris beat COVID-19. But his fight against the disease continues.
Harris later re-tested negative, and just 22 days after his devastating diagnosis, he returned to work in the emergency room. Harris donated plasma once and has another visit scheduled. He’s joined virtual think tank groups whose sole mission is identifying the best medical path forward in the pandemic.
The science is still out on whether Harris carries an immunity to the virus. For him, it doesn’t matter: “I’ll help anyone who walks through the door,” he said.
His life perspective, forever altered.
“Going back to work was such an emotionally powerful experience like I’ve never had before,” Harris said. “I’m still a little shaken by the whole thing, honestly.”
Here they come now, walking out of the front door of their family home, all four together. Benjamin is holding hands with mom and dad, clasping their fingers close to his chest. Ayelet twirls around in a teal dress. The twins are smiling. Giggling now. The virus didn’t win.
Harris returned home from the hospital with strict orders to remain self-isolated from the family for at least 72 hours. Another grueling wait. On March 25, the moment finally arrived, and Harris wrote in a journal entry for EMS World that he was “surprised I didn’t leave marks on my children from hugging them so hard.”
“It was very hard for him to be apart from the family,” Yaffe said. “He’s a very compassionate and loving person. He just loves seeing the twins grow, laugh, and experience life.”
Truth be told, the twins were more resilient through this crisis than you might expect. Growing up in a two-physician household means mom and dad are often called away at a moment’s notice. Babysitters and nannies, for years, have filled the gaps.
Coronavirus survivor Matthew Harris and Hillary Yaffe with their twins, Benjamin and Ayelet, 5, at their home on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Harris, 38, who says he now feels 65 after all of this, noted, “I got sick just as the medical community in general was starting to think about how to protect frontline healthcare workers. We always wear appropriate personal protective equipment. We were all still kind of wrapping our heads around what this could mean. I left the E.R. when things were still relatively normal. I came back to a world of face shields, gowns and gloves every moment of an eight-hour shift. It was just a different world. We’re making adjustments. We’re rolling with the punches because what choice do we have?”
Not anymore. Like millions across the world during this pandemic, a silver lining.
“We’ve had more time as a family than we’ve ever had,” Yaffe said.
Harris might not have pulled through COVID-19 without their virtual love. Especially Yaffe’s words. Her faith never wavered.
“We always joke that we’re a power couple,” Harris said. “She’s the power. I make up the couple.”
Harris will continue his front-line work against the pandemic. He understands that millions of families across the world relate to his story, but with a tragic ending. Harris is grateful for the medical team that kept him alive.
This nightmare will eventually end, and when it does, the things we love must endure.
“We take that lesson going forward,” Yaffe said. “That your family is really one of the treasures that you have. You only have a certain amount of time with them.
“And that can change in an instant.”
This content was originally published here.