Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
That Lennon song was on the radio yesterday when I started up the car. The first time I’d been out in a few days and everything felt remote. Like I’d come out of a coma and the world had changed in subtle ways. Strange days. It occurred to me that I’ve been in disaster areas before. I have felt the anxiety of the unknown. The uncertainty. It can leave you feeling like you are on uneven ground with no solid footing. Unsure what step to take next. I remember that feeling when I first stepped out of the collapsed Haitian airport into the streets of a demolished Port au Prince ten years ago when I had to manage a multiple of injured patients with little resources. I felt it when turning a corner from a lush backdrop to first see a clear-cut area with 1 million refugees in Bangladesh. The difference? In both of those cases, I knew that I’d be returning to my normal life at the end of both missions. This COVID-19 crisis is not like that at all.
The unknown is the scariest part of all this. The last time the world had seen anything like this was during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. Yes, there are some smart people working on it but everyone’s learning as they go. I think about some of the epicenters. I remember the energy and the crowds when Allison and I had visited New York before. The usually jammed Broadway area is a ghost town these days. The news is filled with stories of people trapped on cruise ships or desperately trying to make it home from places like Peru or Morocco. It’s filling everyone with anxiety.
That anxiety grew in me more last week when Allison went to work at the ER. I felt like a child not wanting their parent to leave. I was genuinely worried and concerned for her safety. Late last week I felt it again as I walked into the hospital to go to the operating room.
The front of the hospital is usually bustling with activity. People dropping off loved ones or picking them up from their appointments. It can be an emotional space. Entering the hospital can often involve navigating the loading zone and arriving ambulances. This day, there was only a single ambulance unloading a patient, with its lights on but no siren. These paramedics deserve the utmost respect. They go into the homes and places with no COVID-19 test kits, no time to be overly cautious. Still, they go. That’s a hero in my books.
Inside the doors, there are now temporary checkpoints where people are screened before they can enter the hospital. For safety reasons, they are trying to keep it to just patients. That means loved ones may not be able to enter, may not be able to see their family member in distress or through their time of need. They may not even be able to hold their hand to comfort them during their last moments. I can’t imagine how soul-crushing that would be. It is all too real now.
Beyond the doors and the checkpoint, there is a tension that hangs in the air like you’re moving through water. It slows you down. It lets you know that external forces are at work. It’s heavy. The halls are empty. But you can feel the weight against each step.
The one thing you could always 100% count on is that the nurses are ready. Always pros. But even here, you can sense an anxiety. It’s not the situation. Again, it’s the uncertainty. The rules have changed. Are still changing and we are all trying to adapt. Nurses are the best at it. They can’t work from home or via Zoom in their kitchen. They have to show up. And I never hear a single complaint. Quite the opposite. Everyone’s there to lend a helping hand, or that 2-meter-distanced shoulder to lean on.
It’s hard to be comforting right now. This situation can be overwhelming, frightening and scary. But keep in mind there are some extraordinary people at work for you. Please continue to listen to and follow the advice of Dr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Haggie. Wash your hands often. Stay home unless absolutely necessary. Keep social distancing. As my friend Dr. Krysta Au who is undergoing cancer treatment said, it can literally save lives. Do it for her. Do it for the elderly or those most vulnerable. Do it for the medical community and everyone showing up to support them. Do it for you.
We all know our gratitude extends beyond the medical providers. The staff, the administrators, the cleaners, the operators, the orderlies, the people in the kitchens and coffee shops are all there with us. They are all assuming a risk to help others. I have learned that the only way to get through a traumatic time like this is to depend on each other. Whether that’s in Haiti or in St. John’s in the middle of a tough operation, we survive as a group, a team, a community. This will pass. And the bonds we forge in this crisis will go from impenetrable to unbreakable.
The history of this event is being written as we speak. It doesn’t have an ending yet. What we do today will influence it. Our roles will not be defined by the tragedy but by how we responded. Think about it. Never before have we been asked to do so much by doing so little. Just. Stay. Home. Strange days indeed. Most peculiar.
Like a lot of my colleagues, I’ve volunteered for the COVID-19 unit. I have my first shift next week. Wish me luck.
PS. We really need to keep our mental health in mind as well. If you’re struggling, please reach out and bravely ask for help. The number is: 1-888-737-4668
PPS. Essential/frontline workers heading in/coming from a shift? Crank this tune.