Anyone who’s had a heart transplant has known what it’s like to socially isolate in the months after surgery.
Austinite Jennifer Berliner, whose heart transplant was four years ago, posted a video on her Facebook page to help all of us learn how to socially distance without going crazy.
Berliner, 43, was in isolation for three months after her transplant in April 2016, and then she had a cancer diagnosis, which had her in isolation again — a total of 16 months.
She became well-versed in social distancing, hand-washing and wearing a mask when she went outside. She still wears a mask during cold and flu season.
With the coronavirus, she’s been in her house since March 12.
During her 16 months on and off in quarantine, she needed to connect with people often. A text wasn’t enough, she says. She needed FaceTime or phone calls.
Joy became her mantra, she says. She wrote the word on Post-it notes and sought it every day. "I had to find something joyful, whatever it was."
She learned to relish moments like walking her dog. Going out for a walk really helped with the restlessness, she says. "Our house is not a prison," she says.
She loves group exercise, but when she was unable to participate, she would make her own version of an exercise group by calling her sister during her walk.
She also created a routine for herself and made Monday through Friday more productive than weekends.
She tried new hobbies, such as learning the piano. "I’m not very good at it," she says, "but I decided, well, now is the time."
She tried not to watch too much TV and chose reading or listening to music instead. What she watched and read couldn’t be anything too violent or anything that would bring her down. She also took advantage of relaxation and meditation podcasts. And she turned to her faith and watched streaming prayer services.
She also planned for her future. Even though she wasn’t able to drive or get on an airplane, she researched a trip to Paris for her 20th wedding anniversary. It would have happened this spring but won’t now. Her transplant prepared her for that disappointment, too.
She became really good at dealing with setbacks. "It’s not that things are canceled; they are postponed," she says. "I’ve had so many trips canceled because of illness or I was on antibiotics for something. They are disappointing, but you just keep on planning and looking forward to things."
These strategies helped her keep her mind strong while her body got stronger.
"I’m a Jedi at this point in positivity," she says, but she wasn’t always that way. "I had to get some training."
She says she likes to control things, and her post-transplant quarantine was full of things she couldn’t control, just like this stay-at-home time is for people now.
She wasn’t always happy, though. "I certainly have my moments and my pity party," she says. "I certainly have my small moments of resentment, but what keeps me going is my life is on the line. This isn’t optional."
Dr. William Kessler with Cardiothoracic & Vascular Surgeons often has to counsel his heart transplant and mechanical heart device patients about how to socially isolate themselves.
"We want them to focus on their health and their families," he says.
That means relying on a support system, even if it has to be virtual. It also means staying active and healthy, eating right, not smoking or drinking, and staying busy with a purpose.
He sees people having "isolation syndrome" right now. They are standing at the end of their driveways and watching people walk by (at a safe distance) to have some sort of human connection.
"It’s super tough, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last," Kessler says.
Precautions that folks who are going through a transplant are told to take for medical reasons can help everyone right now: Keep a safe distance between yourself and other people, wash your hands regularly, do not hug people or shake hands, wear a mask to protect yourself from bringing fingers to your face and to create some sort of barrier, never leave home without hand sanitizer.
Dr. Jeff Zapalac, a retired orthodontist, is one of Kessler’s transplant patients. He had his transplant on Oct. 30.
Zapalac, 70, says that at first, when social distancing was the most restrictive, he and his wife, Shannon, would go to open spaces to get out of the house.
He says it was probably harder on Shannon because she had to be isolated as well to keep him safe.
They read more and researched topics that interested them. They got better at using the internet to find things. They exercised, including playing golf, while keeping a safe distance.
Before the transplant, they were very social and out with friends a lot. Now they’ve become comfortable making dinner at home.
"You have to think outside the box as far as keeping yourself entertained," he says.
There was a lot of window washing and closet cleaning. A lot of yardwork, too, and sitting outside more. He also watched YouTube videos on how to fix things around the house.
"Every now and then, I do something that makes me really proud," he says of his newly acquired handyman skills.
Zapalac says he’s always kept a journal, and he found himself writing more. They also took more naps, because they had time to do so.
And he had conversations with people. "I find myself enjoying conversations more than before because I would want to be doing something," he says.
The isolation following his transplant, he says, made him "more comfortable in being."