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Her shortness of breath wasn’t coronavirus. It was an anxiety attack

Liz Westbrook’s job as a health care lobbyist means ‘nonstop coronavirus and Congress’

Liz Westbrook is a two-time Ironman athlete and a spin (and bootcamp) instructor. She can run a mile under 7 minutes. Fast-paced and high-intensity are in her wheelhouse.

For her, sweat is an accessory. But last week, while on a work-related conference call, the “cold sweats” and “rapid heartbeat” she felt were not something she volunteered for.

“I looked in the mirror to make sure my face was not blue from running out of oxygen,” Westbrook told Heard on the Hill.

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She’s a lobbyist at Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney (a firm that has offices on both coasts), and her specialty is health care, which means that this is an especially busy time, as industry players rush to shape legislation responding to the current pandemic.

Luckily, the shortness of breath she felt that afternoon was not a sign of coronavirus (which crossed her mind). It was an anxiety attack. “The fun thing about panic is that it has the same chest tightening symptoms as Covid-19,” she wrote on Instagram.

On any other normal-ish day when she’s not confined to her house, Westbrook visits the Hill — sometimes for an Energy and Commerce hearing on substance abuse, for example, but always to liaise between her health care clients and Congress. She’s used words like “interoperability” on Twitter and “healthtech” in meetings with congressional staff.

As for the recently buzzy “telehealth”? It’s been part of her vocabulary since before it entered the spotlight over these last several weeks. (Her firm’s clients have been “working on it for years,” she said.)

Still, when it came time to update her tech client on the Senate stimulus package last week, pressure caught on faster than she could catch her breath.

“I’m grateful to have a job I can do from home,” she said. “But my job right now is to think about this crisis and the health care side of it.” Or as she put it on Instagram, “it’s just nonstop coronavirus and Congress.”

Westbrook got through the call with the help of her mute button and her “giant” dogs, Birkin and Daenerys, who provided both emotional support and an excuse to take a walk.

Like every Washingtonian right now, she’s absorbing nonstop coronavirus news in a city where nonessential businesses and many Metro stops are closed. This wasn’t her first anxiety attack. On a flight to Colorado, during “one of those landings where you learn why you have a seatbelt on an airplane,” she had similar symptoms. These days it helps to repeat to herself, “You’ve experienced this before.” But in most other ways this pandemic is something entirely new, thanks to the combined effects of social distancing and urgency at work.

Her strategy so far: Ask for help. Take more breaks. Stay physically active. Watching a little HGTV has helped too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled resources for people facing anxiety related to COVID-19. So has the National Alliance on Mental Health, which also hosts a free 24/7 crisis support line; text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained counselor.

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