Handshake

Kathy Chu MD

Montefiore Medical Center, PGY3

May 11, 2020


Putting on my mask, putting on my goggles, putting on my face shield. Running to rapid responses and codes from one end of the hospital to another. Patients dying every night, after doing everything that could be done. I’m exhausted. Sanitizing my hands for the hundredth time. Leaving my shoes at the door, wiping down my phone, my keys, my pager, my pens, my stethoscope, my badge. Showering for twenty minutes with hot scalding water. Over and over. I’m exhausted. Today, the same as the one before.


And yet each day is different – a different patient of mine is dying each day. Today is Mr. R. His eyes closed as his chest heaves, at first leaning forward and then leaning to the side, all in an attempt to catch his breath. He responds to me when I call his name, with one word only – agua, over and over he calls, agua. The mask is blowing oxygen, fast, into his mouth and his nose. A small wind tunnel sitting on his face. He is dying, the critical care doctors tell me. And this I know, as I hold his hand and watch tears fall from the corner of his eyes. I don’t know whether it’s from the oxygen from the mask, or because he can actually hear everything we’re saying, or maybe because he hasn’t seen his son in three weeks. I leave the room to call his son – L asks to come to the hospital – he doesn’t care about getting infected, speaking so fiercely over the phone I feel as if we’re strangers arguing on the subway. I warn him about the risks, but honestly I don’t push as hard I could. I tell him the hospital rules – ten minutes and no touching.


L is much younger than I expected. A gruff voice on the phone, he spoke with the confidence and assurance of someone much older. Here in high-top street Nikes and maroon corduroy pants, he puts on the N95 mask I’ve taken for him. My co-resident shows him how to put it on and it’s clear that the straps are digging into the tops of his ears, which are now red and angry looking. We take him to the room. Mr. R is not responding as much as before and my co-resident has to rub him in the middle of chest, hard, to get him to open his eyes. But as soon as Mr. R sees his son, the brown-green eyes jolt wide open and Mr. R is more alert than I’ve seen him for a whole week. We pull the curtain to give them privacy. From the hallway, I see the high-top street Nikes run around to the side of the bed. It’s clear from the shoes and the forward lean of the blue gown, now touching the floor, that L is leaving over to embrace his father. “Your son loves you,” L yells. Over and over. Over and over. My co-resident and I wait silently in the hallway, looking at each other over our N95s. Ten minutes pass and we go in and pull the curtain just the slightest bit, and my co-resident looks back at me and I look at her and give the slightest nod. She holds up her hand, indicating five more minutes.


“You were a good father,” L yells. And another lean forward, the blue gown grazing the floor again. I count…fourteen seconds.


L steps out of the room and asks for his father’s phone and wallet, he says he needs to pay his father’s bills. We awkwardly exchange the items from a contaminated bag to a new clean bag, and once that’s done, he hastily grabs the bag. He sticks out his hand to shake mine – I look down at it for a second, and realize it’s the first handshake I’ve been offered in almost six weeks. I hesitate for just a brief moment, and then firmly take his hand in mine. I imagine he can’t see my eyes much behind my goggles and my shield, but tears fall onto my N95 mask, soaking through the top of the mask and the wetness and heaviness of it all sits on my face. I squeeze his hand hard, trying to make up for all the handshakes that were lost for my patients and their families these long six weeks, and I find myself not knowing how to let go.


“Thank you for everything,” he says.


I’m sorry we couldn’t do more, I think, as I watch him walk down the hall, and I’ve never meant it so much.

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