You wouldn't know that Dr. Sarah Bernstein has a chronic illness just by looking at her, but she does. And she's hoping her story will encourage others to take the pandemic more seriously.
On Monday, the 35-year-old posted a photo of herself to Twitter and added a powerful message that's since gone viral.
“Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m 35 and a doctor. I also have a heart condition that puts me at an increased risk for serious complications from covid," she wrote and added the hashtag #IHaveAPreexistingCondition. "Does the face of #chronicIllness look different than you thought?”
Bernstein, who works as a neonatologist at the University of Utah, posted a follow-up tweet that read, "My life matters and so do the nearly 10,000 Americans who died from covid last week. Please feel free to add your own image/story so we can show people what chronic illness really looks like."
The doctor told TODAY that she was 15 when she was diagnosed with an arrhythmia called SVT, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a condition that affects blood flow. In 2005, she had a cardiac ablation and she now takes beta blocker medications twice a day to help control the rhythm of her heart.
The 35-year-old is otherwise active and healthy and has been vaccinated and boosted. So far, she's managed to avoid being diagnosed with COVID-19, but if she were to catch it, it could cause serious complications.
Bernstein said she was inspired to post her message in honor of anyone else who has a chronic condition and also based off her experience working in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“Since the start of the pandemic, I have helped deliver babies to young mothers, some of whom are critically ill and intubated. Some of whom have died from COVID. They’re my age. They look like me. They have families and children and should have had a long life ahead of them. Now all of that is just gone,” she said.
The doctor said she often hears people saying that the pandemic is over or that the omicron variant is only mild, and she always sees the faces of her patients in these instances.
"I see the fear in their eyes and I hear the cries of their family members because COVID is not over for them. Every patient that I care for in the NICU starts their life off with a compromised immune system. They cannot get vaccinated. They cannot protect themselves," she said.
"I wish that I could share their pictures and tell their stories so that people could see who they are hurting when they choose not to wear a mask or wash their hands, but I can’t, so I chose to share my own," she continued.
Since posting her tweet on Monday, Bernstein's hashtag has been trending and a plethora of social media users have joined in on the conversation to share their own stories.
Many people have shared photos and some others have opted to simply write their stories.
Bernstein said it's easy for people to dismiss COVID-19 statistics they hear on the news, but it's much harder to dismiss individual stories.
“When people say, ‘Only 0.4% of COVID deaths occur in children,’ I hear ‘Over 12,000 children have died a preventable death.’ When people say, ‘Well, they had chronic conditions,’ I hear, ‘People with underlying health problems don’t matter,’" she said.
So far, Bernstein has received overwhelmingly positive feedback for her post and she's enjoying watching people find community.
"Living with chronic illness, especially an invisible one, can be extremely isolating, so watching people connect over shared experiences has been a really meaningful experience for me," she said.
Looking ahead, the doctor hopes that people pay attention to the trending hashtag and really see the faces of the people living with chronic conditions instead of seeing them as just another statistic.
"Over 800,000 Americans have died and millions more will have long-term health complications and disabilities. Every single one of them is important. Every single one is a tremendous loss. They are grandparents, siblings, mothers, aunts, friends, children and loved ones. We need to protect and care for each other," she said.