Tufts University School of Medicine, MS1 (MD/MPH)
May 13, 2020
Atlantic Beach, New York
When I read stories about the frontlines of this pandemic I feel like the person who didn’t get the party invite. Like emergency responders, a lot of physicians sign up to practice medicine because their vision of how they want to treat patients includes and is not limited to pandemics. I am one of those people.
“Thank God you’re not there” my husband said when we finished reading an article about a hospital in Manhattan. We are twenty miles away, on the sidelines. From here, if you made your world one without news you would not understand, but feel grateful for, the sudden peace and quiet in your neighborhood. Deep in the abyss of sheltering in place I start to wonder, as much as I want to help, and I wish I was further along in my training to treat patients directly, how would I feel if it became a job requirement?
I’m ashamed of my new normal and how easily I adjusted. I was required to move out of on-campus housing which landed me back at my parents. We sleep with the windows open and I wake up to bird songs. In-between lecture recordings I work on puzzles, read. I have the luxury of being able to be patient, and I will continue to be for the safety of those who are most vulnerable to this new strain of coronavirus.
When I was eighteen my dad suggested that I learn how to become more comfortable with being alone, and I did. I am not alone now, but my daily life is much more solitary than living on the 4th floor of graduate student housing, where the kitchen was a reliable source of conversation at pretty much all hours of the day and I shared a bathroom with ten other women. I have not been in a live conversation with more than three other people for two months, which even while writing it down is glaringly minor compared to the suffering and sacrifices of millions of people in our country.
I signed up for a career in medicine to help, and being asked to sit on the sidelines is, physically speaking, easy, but I feel guilty for finding that I enjoy parts of this unanticipated extra time with my husband and our parents. I touch base with former supervisors to see how they’re doing, check-in on co-workers, eager to hear how they are holding up, how patients are doing, and how the health system in general is doing. I hear that it’s like a war zone, that the ICU beds were maxed out over a week ago, that one of my favorite patients died, and in some instances they are so busy I hardly get a response at all. This is going to be awhile, and my role is now clear - wait it out. I pick up a book I’ve told myself I’d read, open it up to the first page and begin reading, painfully aware of how inconsequential my actions currently are.
I participate in a phone bank to organize volunteers who recovered from COVID-19 and want to donate blood to check for antibodies. Their eagerness to participate in the research process to create a vaccine was the dose of humanity I needed. This summer I will be joining the medical field for a little while. I will be researching both what value the technology that continuously monitors BP can provide to the management and treatment of hypertension, and the connection between hypertension and COVID-19.
I can hear and feel the mounting impatience with sheltering in place when I talk to others, read articles, and watch the news. But to ease up on restrictions prematurely will only continue to devastate the most vulnerable, who are already disproportionately suffering from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. I explain that people with comorbidities will inevitably be pressured to return to work, and disability payments are generally less than your income when working full-time. Thankfully, being in medical school lends you some credibility: you are studying this stuff, you must at least have a better general understanding of this. I stress that it is not until we have a vaccine that can be administered on a nationwide scale that we can safely establish our society’s concept of a “new normal”. When you hear an idea that you know is unfair and would disproportionately impact populations, push back and speak up. COVID-19 can only be beaten by thinking of people other than ourselves, which many career tracks, including becoming a physician, expect us to do. But I am worried about the decision-makers and their motivations. I fear for our society’s stability, I am hopeful for a vaccine as the solution, I am desperately eager to help, and I remain watchful of the key players, not so patiently, from the sidelines.