Has social distancing paradoxically made us closer? Can disease be tragically beautiful?
I pondered these questions as I reminisced over the past few weeks working on one of the medicine floors in my hospital, grappling with these thoughts almost every moment as I have witnessed the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After my shift ended, I called my parents during my trek from the hospital to the parking lot. On February 29 — leap day — I had this conversation:
“Lyd … are you wearing a respirator when you see patients?” my parents (who had me on speaker phone) asked me.
“A … what? … Respirator? Yeah … um, I do when I see patients who might have tuberculosis … why?”
“Lydia Boyette, you are a doctor!” my mom reminded me. “Do you not keep up with the news?” she questioned, despite already knowing the answer.
“Not if I can help it,” I respond with a smirk, evidenced in my cadence.
“You don’t know about the coronavirus?”
“Well, yeah, I know about coronavirus … I think I studied it briefly in microbiology during my first year of medical school. I think there has been an outbreak of it somewhere in Asia..?”
Daddy piped into the conversation, “Sugar, if you don’t keep up with the news, how are you going to know if something bad happens?”
“Well … I expect that you, Mama, Mamaw, or Pa will call and tell me,” likely all individually and simultaneously I thought, bemused by my family’s unique circulation of news.
My parents both audibly sighed because they knew, despite not admitting it, that I was right. Striking me with reality, my mom remarked, “Well, then, since we are responsible for telling you the news, you should know that there is now a confirmed death from the coronavirus in the United States.”
Brushing it off as I usually do to dispel worries, I responded, “It’s going to be okay.”
Ever since then, I have been indirectly infected and directly injected with information regarding COVID-19: from reading work emails, overhearing hospital chatter, and disregarding signs on the highway on my way to the hospital demanding me to “Stay home!” As most Americans are aware, the year is 2020. It’s an election year. Historically, these pre-election months leading to the inevitable vote in November are divisive separating our nation into right, left, and sometimes just straight down the middle. In January and even early February, this was the trajectory that 2020 was following.
However, with each new day, COVID-19 has demanded almost every moment of media attention. Overnight, the world knew the differences between surgical masks and N95 respirators. The disposable, personal protective equipment needed to transform and become personally protected and reusable. A nation so divided between left and right realized that left and right don’t really matter. A world so inundated with countries in various stages of war or peace became somewhat still. Suddenly, we were all acutely aware that our differences in opinions are inconsequential if we are no longer alive to voice them. We were forced from our castes into one large whole.
A microscopic, novel coronavirus that was unstudied, unyielding and uncontrolled was threatening our existence. Something, anything, or everything had to change. As announced by the American Medical Association, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March. Through the enactment of this new legislation, the United States Federal Government has provided “that physicians and other health care professionals who provide volunteer medical services during the public health emergency related to COVID-19 shall not be liable for providing such services that relate to the diagnosis, prevention or treatment of COVID-19 or the assessment or care of a patient related to an actual or suspected case of COVID-19.”
Globally, there are 1.87 million active cases of COVID-19. Thus far, there have been approximately 116,000 deaths from the virus, but the numbers have not yet peaked. The math is easy, [(one person + severe disease – oxygen) x exponential spread] = mass global mortality. The lungs that fill us with breath and the hearts that pump oxygen throughout our bodies are what link us to one another regardless of race, gender, religion, political views or socioeconomic standing. It is a grim reality to say that we realized that humanity and anatomy are our common denominators.
As I reflect over the past few weeks, I have watched my little bit of the world in Fayetteville, North Carolina unite. People in almost every facet of life are working towards one common goal: public health. For example, my community’s church donated thousands of N95 respirators to my hospital. Krispy Kreme, which opened its first location in Winston-Salem, North Carolina soon after the Great Depression, has literally been spreading the sweetness by giving away doughnuts by the dozen to health care workers. Locally owned restaurants are providing food at street corners.
During this time, physicians and nurses around the world are being praised for heroism. However, let us not forget the unsung heroes. To those transfer truck drivers who spend hours on end away from their families delivering essential goods across countries, to those in the food and nutrition industry who are being exposed to the masses, to all those members of the sanitation staff across the world, to those who fix cars, industrial equipment, and other essential modes of transportation and hauling, and to those in the communication industry, we appreciate you. You all help make a socially distanced world function. You are all making a difference. You are heroes.
Often, we say that hindsight is 20/20. However, this year — our year, 2020 — should be one of foresight. Hippocrates required us, as medical professionals, to “Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future.” In medicine, there are no certainties or promises. Nothing is guaranteed. We are all just people. I implore my colleagues to remember this. We should express our humility while always remembering our innate humanity which irrevocably connects us to our patients and their families.
Despite our best attempts, we cannot foretell the future. Many lives have been taken far too soon from this pandemic. We have not ignored them. We are listening and are continuing to collaborate and adapt to face this challenge. A disease that has required us to socially distance ourselves has paradoxically brought us closer together. In true Shakespearian fashion, this is nothing if not tragically beautiful.
Image credit: courtesy of the author.