Good Riddance, 2020
On Sunday December 28, I worked my last ICU shift of 2020. I’m so looking forward to having some down time to rest and recharge. This year has been a challenge, to put it mildly.
At the start of 2020, it was like any other year. Then came the reports of this new virus emerging from China that had health experts concerned. I thought the two large oceans would protect our country, just like it did with SARS CoV-1 and MERS.
How naïve I turned out to be.
At the beginning of the pandemic, as we started seeing cases in our ICU, I was nervous and scared. And yet, at the same time, there was something exhilarating, something thrilling, about being part of something greater: the Great Pandemic of 2020, getting to fight on the front line against this new and mysterious illness.
That thrill went away very quickly.
The death and destruction wrought by this horrific virus was something I had never experienced before. These patients don’t just get sick…they get frighteningly sick. These patients don’t just crash…they crash frighteningly quickly.
And then, many of them get tortured to death after weeks of suffering critical illness.
This same movie has played over and over and over again. It’s exhausting. And on top of all that is the fear of getting this highly contagious virus yourself or — worse — bringing it home to your family. That fear permeates every moment of caring for these patients.
And what is not reflected in the numbing numbers of deaths in our country — well over 326,000 as of this post, is the pain and anguish felt, not only by the patients, but by their families as well. That is not being measured in the statistics.
Just this past week, I watched a family member break down — barely able to stand — out of grief over the death of her mother. She was an only child, and looking into her bloodshot eyes, overflowing with tears, I got a small sense of the tragedy of her situation.
It was not the first death from COVID in our ICU. It will not be the last. But for that daughter, her whole world was crashing down, and it was horrific. And no matter how hard I try to block the emotion out, seeing this pain and anguish again, and again, and again, and again has left its mark on me and all of my colleagues forever.
Now, I understand a little of what this feels like — my own uncle passed away this year from COVID, and we lost our daughter to cancer 11 years ago this past June. I know firsthand the horror of losing a loved one to critical illness.
Still, mortality statistics do not tell the story of the devastation left behind among the families of the victims of COVID. Yes, we finally have a vaccine, and it offers all of us hope and optimism for the end of this pandemic.
But infections will not cease because we now have a vaccine. Hospitals will not stop filling up with sick patients because we now have a vaccine. ICUs won’t stop getting more and more COVID patients because we now have a vaccine. It is going to take a long time to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity.
Even after I received the first dose of my own vaccine, I am still wearing my mask, watching my distance, and washing my hands. I am still donning PPE as I care for my patients in the ICU. We cannot afford to let down our guard, especially so close to the end of this plague.
Still, even after this pandemic is over, I will never forget the look on my patients’ faces as I intubated and placed them on a ventilator. For most of them, that was the last time they will ever be coherent before they die. And it is a look of sheer terror.
And I will also never forget the look of that daughter’s eyes, trying to cope with the loss of her mother, who was only in her 50s. The numbers of deaths do not tell these stories. And so we must tell them ourselves, so the world over can truly understand what this virus has done to so many people.
Finally, this year is coming to a close. Finally, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. But that tunnel is very long, and the light is very far away. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Still, it’s nice to be able to say, “Good riddance, 2020. It hasn’t been a pleasure.”