University at Buffalo School of Medicine, MS3
May 2, 2020
Buffalo, New York
My father has the biggest heart, but he wants to cheat on social distancing.
I know he has his reasons. As a young man, Dad was in the restaurant business, so to him, that meant that he was in the business of making people happy. Every day, he would wake up at the crack of dawn so that he could be at the market when it first opened. There, he would spend hours deliberating over the ripest fruits and vegetables, the choicest cuts of meats, the freshest fish, dreaming of his diners’ smiles as they take that first bite. And my father didn’t take this level of commitment to only paying customers: when it came to providing hot, freshly cooked meals to charity, he delivered his meals with the same gusto. Not content with purchasing, preparing, and packaging all the food for free, he would also pile the boxes into our beat-up old minivan, so that he could bring his feast directly to the people he was serving. He was famous for just bursting through the charity’s door with an ear-to-ear grin, serving food and doling out handshakes and hugs for the people he loved.
The trouble is, though, my father still tries to carry on in his old ways, pandemic be damned. Although the restaurant is long gone, he still tries to arise at an ungodly hour to continue his daily pilgrimage to the market, although this time he’s scouring the aisles for my mother’s and my relatives’ favorite foods, dreaming of the family meals he hopes to prepare. As his vision grows dimmer, he no longer drives all around the city to multiple different charities, but he still fills his car with boxes of meals to give to the local church, and wants to burst through that door, handshaking and hugging everyone.
In the end, it took me at least three heart-to-hearts over FaceTime – my medical education took me far from home - but I think he’s finally catching on. In this uncertain pandemic-filled world, things are changing, and my father now knows that he has a responsibility to be mindful of his own health, if not for himself, then for the sake of those he loves, and those who love him. It is true that as recently as last year, he could spend oodles of time in public, and shake as many hands and give as many hugs as he wanted, but doing these things today could put him at risk of both catching and spreading disease. Many types of social behavior that he once considered basic social etiquette—previously innocuous things such as holding the elevator, kissing babies, and even opening the door for someone—could all be considered poor public health practice.
And I am catching on to a few things too. I learned that even as our panicked and disease-stricken society changes in new and scary ways, some things don’t change, in particular our responsibility as medical students to pass on the knowledge given to us by our wiser and more experienced attendings. While as medical students, we are not full-fledged physicians yet, we still hold an ethical duty to our communities to help lead the way in safe health practices. Perhaps the hardest place to lead this way is with our own parents and families, who nurtured us and kept us safe as children; now it is our turn to nurture them and keep them safe. I thought I was years away from the most difficult conversations with my folks; prior to COVID, I had mostly exhorted them to get out of the house, to exercise, to socialize, to keep their health and their spirits up. Now I implore them to stay home and model doing so for them. To the same relatives I feared I’d have awkward political conversations with over a Thanksgiving turkey, I am now politely explaining via text message exactly what bleach does to the human body if consumed. To my friends – who are sheltering in place a half-mile away but might as well be a thousand miles away, as visits would be risky here in Queens – I think about how I choose to interact with them as I look carefully at my social media posts to ask if I’m really modeling good behavior. While I eagerly hope for the day this emergency passes, I know that this awareness of personal ethics and leadership by healthcare providers in public health will shape the physician I will be for my patients and community.