This essay is part of ″Survive. Thrive. Evolve: How Two Years of the Pandemic Impacted Us Around the World,” a global HuffPost project featuring individuals writing about how their lives were affected after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. The following piece originally appeared on HuffPost Greece. It has been translated into English and lightly edited for clarity.
Amaliada is a small town in western Greece with 17,000 inhabitants, mainly farmers who grow potatoes, watermelons, olives and oranges.
Theoni Georgopoulou’s practice is located on the first floor of a small building, tucked in the central square of the town. Almost all private clinics in Amaliada are located in this square and almost everyone who lives there know the doctors by their first names.
“Everyone calls me Theoni and most of my fellow citizens who got sick during the pandemic came to my office,” says Georgopoulou, the only pulmonary and tuberculosis specialist in Amaliada.
Georgopoulou will never forget Feb 28, 2020, or what played out within the walls of her 165-square-foot office on that day, when a local group from Amaliada returned home from a vacation to Israel.
“I got a call on that Friday morning,” she told HuffPost Greece. “A patient I’d been monitoring for years told me he had a fever and that he would like to make an appointment. Due to flu season my practice was busy, so I asked him to come see me in the early afternoon when it would be quieter.”
When the patient arrived, Georgopoulou followed typical protocol and ran some tests. “Two days later the wife of this patient came to see me with a cough,” she said. “It was just a cough. Nothing else. No fever, no other symptoms, but it was a very intense cough. Three days later, the day the first case of Covid-19 in Greece was announced, I was seeing the last patient that had gone on that trip.” It turns out those patients were the first in Greece to be diagnosed with Covid-19.
Just weeks later, this lung specialist from this small town in western Greece was overwhelmed by tears during a television appearance where she spoke about the death of the nation’s first Covid-19 victim.
“I don’t know if it was the most difficult event in my life, but it was definitely the most difficult to cope with,” Georgopoulou said in the interview. “He was my high school math teacher, a friend, an educator, a trade union campaigner for 30-40 years. I knew him from when I was 13 up until 54, which is the age I am now. I owe this man a big thank-you, because even as he was dying, I never stopped learning from him. He taught me things that were both useful for my patients throughout these two years and for me personally.”
Antonis Fourlis, HuffPost Greece’s editor-in-chief, spoke with Georgopoulou about the pandemic, what she’s learned, and how it’s changed her.
HuffPost Greece: Two years after the outbreak of COVID-19, what is the biggest change you’ve seen?
Two years later, everything has changed in our daily lives. Above all, it’s human contact [that’s changed the most]: the hands we do not shake, the hugs we do not receive from the people we love, how we’ve come to avoid our unvaccinated friends. If we were to divide the “before” and “after” periods of the vaccine, the anxiety and noise of the initial months has been replaced by the gift of science. Slowly but surely, we can feel safer and happier in our homes, surrounded by our parents and children.
How has the pandemic changed you personally, both as a doctor and a person?
I became more tolerant of human fear, but I need to manage my frustration with misinformation about Covid-19. As a doctor, I now schedule telemedicine calls and teleconsultations more often than I’d prefer. And, of course [laughs], I became the “Front-Line Corona Warrior,” as my daughter calls me. That title has replaced pulmonary-tuberculosis specialist, which is written on the sign [on my office].
The pandemic is often described as “a nightmare” – one we’d like to wake up from. Is there anything positive you’ve seen emerge during the last two years?
Knowledge – we’ve gained more knowledge on a daily basis. And another definite positive is the closer cooperation and solidarity among colleagues, as well as the health professionals who have been called on to help combat the virus.
You examined the man who ended up being the first victim of the pandemic in Greece. What did you learn from that experience?
You can’t put a price on health, and strengthening health infrastructure across all levels must become a priority in Greece and around the world. Every time a patient with severe Covid symptoms wins the battle, I think of that first tragic incident and reassure myself that, at least for now, we know more about this disease.
When I first met you 23 months ago in Amaliada, you told me that you believed we would beat COvid. Did we win? And if so, at what price?
Unfortunately, the fight continues. Even though we’re tired and we may want to ignore it, Covid continues to attack. But science has won, thanks to the vaccine and drugs, which were trialed successfully. Many people, however, were lost. Too many were taken. We’ve all changed, and it will take time before we can leave this pandemic behind us.