Recent events have highlighted a systemic problem within our world, our country, our state, and our community. People of color fight an uphill battle in every facet of life, at every socioeconomic level. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception — as we all know by now, patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately afflicted. But the spotlight has refocused on a chronic pandemic: systemic racism.
On June 1, I worked a shift in the trauma intensive care unit as riots and looting continued outside and the National Guard patrolled the streets. A group of nurses and I gathered around the police radio held up by two officers who accompanied a patient.
“Hello? Can you hear me?” Tightly holding the phone, I heard only an old man’s distant yelling and the shattering of dishes being thrown against the wall.
The pandemic points to an important lesson: a rejection of traditional leadership structures, at least those that feed into a profit-based medical system, may be necessary in order to create a different world. The union provides such a framework, vesting power in a collective of voices. But in order to succeed at the level of a union, physicians need to let their voices join that collective — they cannot expect a delegate or representative alone to do the entire job, just as we might expect a program director to guide us in the right direction.
I learned to trust my own discomfort as an indicator of the toxic power dynamics that breed abuse for both patients and health workers. I became even more attuned to the pitfalls of professionalism because of my membership in Put People First! PA (PPF-PA), a human rights organization made up of working-class people building power to win universal health care.
In the first two months of 2020, I watched with alarm as a cordon sanitaire descended on Wuhan. I lived there as an anthropologist completing my research on Chinese medicine in 2017. Friends from Wuhan — most of them doctors — were suddenly describing scenes out of a dystopian nightmare.
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.
In medical school, I was taught to sit at eye level when speaking to patients, ask how they would prefer to be addressed, and ask open-ended questions to allow them to express themselves. I learned to interject with “That must be really difficult for you,” or “I can only imagine how that makes you feel,” as a way to show empathy and foster better connection with patients.
I was appointed to do the morning shift in the COVID ward of our respected hospital. The unit is a negative pressure area and, to us doctors, it is comforting as we embark on the Icarus flight.
I’m a soon-to-graduate allergy and immunology fellow and the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have catapulted every single physician into uncharted, and sometimes strange circumstances.
It is difficult to put into words the level of frustration and despair that I have felt over the last few days watching the schizophrenic national response to this COVID-19 crisis and its detrimental effects on the work conditions of my colleagues. As an internal medicine physician working in Utah, it feels like it is the calm before the storm as emergency room and urgent care volumes are down as people try to socially distance to correct the spread of this virus. Other areas of the country are not so lucky.
As I check in on my patients each morning, I wonder if some will unexpectedly decompensate and die over the coming weeks. I think about myself and my co-residents who are in the hospital all day swabbing patients for COVID-19 without adequate personal protective equipment. Many of my co-residents are on home isolation as a result of this exposure, waiting for their test results and praying that our government will step up and fund more mask production, or civilians will return the N95s they’ve hoarded, or the set of a TV medical drama will donate their props to us.