There’s a place where we’ve been in our minds. Not just doctors, but most of us. A scene so familiar that it’s almost like a real memory, usually dating back to adolescence.
Sometimes there is fire or swirling waters, a rush of adrenaline, and then a warm feeling of relief and pride for having been able to step up, to be the hero in the drama. It’s the stuff of our shared humanity – we love to hear stories of brave heroes coming to the rescue. We understand heroism, we admire it. We all want to be heroes. And in those hero stories we know and love, the supporting family characters are always standing by proudly, adoring and admiring, as they should be.
And yet when that moment comes, it doesn’t feel brave. There are no trumpets nor horses in sight – no shiny armour, in fact there’s not enough PPE to go around. There’s only a stifling sense of breathlessness trying to talk through the N95 mask, fogged up safety goggles impairing our vision. Sweat and uncertainty. A sense of helplessness and inadequacy. You don’t know if you can do this, the last time you managed a vent was over a decade ago. That briefing you got and the so-called supervision feels pretty sketchy. This isn’t what you trained for. This isn’t what any of us trained for. But you have to keep going. You can’t quit now – not when so many other doctors are out sick.
On the frontlines
Of course it’s only a matter of time before you get sick – but you pray that you won’t be the one to give COVID-19 to anyone that you love. Some of us have chosen to live completely isolated in the basement, away from the family to keep them safe. Others engage in a rigorous decontamination routine when coming home, hoping and praying that it works.
Either way, you don’t really get how to be with them, nor them with you. They are not exactly acting like the supporting characters in your hero drama. Your family routine is all messed up with no school and husband working from home. Your parents keep saying how much they have been worrying about you. They want you to take care of yourself by “being more selfish”, whatever that may mean.
As the numbers of new cases begin slowly to drift downward, life is settling into a new kind of normal. We feel exhausted and heavy. The adrenaline that ran through our veins for days and weeks is tapped out. We are trying to pick up the pieces of our old routines, but the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next feels like it’s just hanging over everyone. When will the next surge come? And what you do when it does?
Most of us have never had to choose between our work and our personal safety, nor the safety of our loved ones. This pandemic has forced us to make heroic choices that most of us have never faced before. What do we say to our loved ones as we run toward the burning building? Honey, you and the kids will be okay. Dad will take care of you, or grandma will.
You are just doing to your job, but how does that make them feel? We understand why so many of us are experiencing some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) these days. But it’s harder to wrap our brains around the fact that our loved ones may also have been traumatized to some degree. Your child may have felt rejected when she didn’t get why you couldn’t hug her right away when coming in from work, or your spouse may have felt a sense of abandonment or loneliness.
Our new normal must include gentle recognition that we have all shared this traumatic experience together, that it’s by no means over, and that we must find a way to take care of each other moving forward. We may be tempted to brush it aside and move ahead with our lives as if nothing happened. Perhaps it feels too tender just now, and that’s okay. For some of us, it will feel more comfortable to heal more quietly, with a gesture of caring here and an expression of love there.
In real life, heroes need to go above and beyond to take care of their loved ones too, after all the rescuing work. They would love to hear the words from us:
I love you so much, dear. You mean the world to me. I need your love and support so much right now.
I wish I could help you understand how important this work was to me. I’m sorry, I know it’s been such a disruption to our family life, and I feel bad about that. I really appreciate your being willing to hold down the fort here at home with the kids.
I don’t want you to worry about me - I promise that I’ll do my very best to stay safe. And I need you to forgive me if I somehow get sick.
I know we’re all going to be okay.