Love (and Fear) in the time of Coronavirus
Though now it seems like months ago, on a recent Monday afternoon I received a communication from a patient on a social media messaging application. It took me nearly an hour before I noticed there was a message waiting, as I had been bouncing around our Residency clinic all morning, seeing patients, calling others, and trying to help out in any way I could in the face of significant adjustments to our patient care models as a result of the worsening Coronavirus pandemic.
Despite using my actual name on social media platforms, it was the first time a patient had reached out to me in any way through these channels. My surprise at being contacted in such a way was quickly overcome by my concern regarding from whom it came.
The notification was from a man I see every few months with his wife, who is another of my patients. I had spoken to her only a few hours earlier on the phone after she sent a message through the secure messaging portal on our electronic medical record. When I saw his name I feared something happened to her since she and I had spoke.
Though young in her mid-40s, she suffered from COPD and now was beginning to recover from a recently diagnosed pneumonia. She sounded well on the phone, though when I asked her to take a few deep breaths for me I could hear her characteristic cough echoing as if she were sitting in the exam room as usual. At the behest of her cough, she and I both reflexively commented on her nearly two decades of smoking and the physical toll it was placing on her health.
As we spoke, she relayed her concern about the slowly healing pneumonia, but even more so, her fear about what was transpiring in our world with the spread of Coronavirus. While she had the medications she needed at home for her breathing and continued recovery from her pneumonia, she worried. If her recovery remained slow or her shortness of breath worsened, she feared the need to seek in-person medical care again and how she may inadvertently contract Coronavirus.
Having been made aware of my own colleague’s COVID-19 positive result the previous day, I acknowledged my own fears and did not disagree with her assessment of the situation. Before finishing our call, I encouraged her to continue the current treatment course and to reach out again if other symptoms developed.
As I slowed my frantic pace and proceeded to my office to respond to her husband’s message, I could not help but worry something had happened to his wife. Knowing there was a respiratory virus wreaking havoc on the human species that could be infiltrating the lungs of many of my older and chronically ill patients had prompted me to make many phone calls the previous week. I exhorted those patients to notify me if symptoms developed and counseled them to come to the office sparingly for concern for them contracting Coronavirus from an asymptomatic carrier.
I sat down at my desk and called the number listed in his chart. It only rang and there was no opportunity to leave a message. My worry was heightened, but I took a few deep breaths and left a brief message, including my work cell phone number, via our EMR’s secure messaging application. I hoped to hear from him soon.
Within only a few short strides after leaving my office, my cell phone rang. He hurriedly identified himself and went straight to the point, before I could even get a word in. His message was quick and his tone was empassioned. Traversing neuron after neuron, it made its way directly to my amygdala, bypassing all other critical components of my existence.
Despite it having been my intent to reach out to him, to hear what could have happened to his wife, he was reaching out to me and his words sent me into an emotional tailspin.
Having heard on the news that morning about the severe shortages in personal protective equipment for health care workers, he wanted to ensure my colleagues, family, and I had enough to stay safe. He informed me of a significant supply at his home for when he worked his contract construction jobs. With a shelter-in-place having been announced the previous day, he did not expect there would be a need them in the foreseeable future.
He asked where they should be sent and after stumbling through the address to the office a couple of times, I managed to get my thoughts together. I paused and took a deep breath and I am certain he could hear the audible wavering. I hesitated to speak more and simply said thanks a few more times. My emotions were coming to the surface as I choked up and said thank you one last time before hanging up.
Love is a hard thing to explain, perhaps it something that is not meant to be explained, but I believe we know it when we see it, when we feel it, and when we hear it.
His message was one of appreciation and gratitude, but in the time of Coronavirus, I felt loved in a way I had never before experienced as a physician.
As physicians, we are often on the receiving end of verbal gratitude and appreciation from our patients. At times, a sturdy handshake from a patient will transform itself into a hug when the positive embrace from another caring human is needed to start the healing process. The care we provide our patients, who are our neighbors, community members, friends, and families, comes from a love and desire to provide our talents to humanity, particularly now in the face of an overwhelming pandemic.
We are fortunate to have the role we do in the lives of others, our solemn oath guiding us in times of distress and confusion to care and assist, even when our own lives may be placed in jeopardy.
Sometimes we are a part of a patient’s life for only a few moments in a time of crisis, but at other times we build bonds over years and become an integral part of their lives. When the latter occurs, we have the opportunity to learn about their deepest loves and their greatest fears. At times we may even share our own with them, reflecting on our own humanity, and creating a shared human experience.
In this time of Coronavirus, as COVID-19 brings both love and fear to our daily existence, with our world seemingly changing on a daily basis, many of us are experiencing displays of love and fear at an exponentially higher rate than was ever imagined possible. We fear how this illness will affect our friends and families if we contract it or spread it to them. Yet, the love and outpouring of appreciation from those who seek our care reminds us this is a sacred calling and takes us back to the bedside on a daily basis despite those fears.
As the days continue and the numbers mount in our medical struggle against Coronavirus, it will be important for us to reflect on love and fear. Rather than setting them apart from each other, as if they are opponents from which there can be only one victor, we must use them together, as a catalyst to not only overcome Coronavirus, but to move our humanity and each other forward.