Steven M. Henick
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, MS3
March 24, 2020
It was a Tuesday afternoon in October of 2016. An announcement had been made over the PA system in the middle school where I taught, calling for the closure of school for the next three days in preparation for Hurricane Matthew. We, the teachers, instinctively banded together to instruct our students to take their school-issued Chromebooks home with them, maintain order in the hallways until the last bus was dismissed, and lock up our classrooms. It was hurricane season in South Carolina, and although our school was located 30 minutes inland from Charleston, all the teachers and staff had been receiving news updates over the previous few days that this storm was barreling up the East Coast and that the predicted trajectory covered the area of our school. We were nervous about our students’ and their families’ safety, yet we were prepared for what might transpire over the next few days: overcrowding at supermarkets from Trader Joe’s to Publix, exceedingly long lines for gas stations when there normally were none, boarding up windows in houses and apartment complexes, and the mass exodus of cars on I-26 westbound. Whether bunkered down at home bracing for the worst or fleeing towards loved ones elsewhere in the country, there seemed to be an air of calm and assurance about what to expect and how to manage even without knowing what the aftermath would entail. Thankfully, school was re-opened the following Tuesday with teachers picking up where they left off in their curricula and students ready to learn.
What we as a global community are experiencing with the current pandemic is dissimilar to what most individuals and families went through when preparing for Hurricane Matthew. Whether in casual conversation or in the columns of major publications, it is clear that there is a pervasive lack of certainty and unity, and there is not likely to be any change on that front for weeks or months. We do not definitively know when all workers can resume life as before and what will happen to those who have lost their employment and health insurance during this trying time. In particular, we do not know when we, as medical students, can share in our patients’ struggles and care for them in person again.
During the weekend that Hurricane Matthew hit, it was a matter of living from one daily voicemail to the next from the school district informing teachers, staff, and students when to return. Now, we are all living email-to-email and one news article to the next from multiple outlets detailing differing opinions on the potential for containment and mitigation with no mention of when we can sit in lecture halls within two seats of each other without breaking out into a nervous sweat. When can we choose food from the school cafe without wearing disposable gloves or high-five our classmates without offering an elbow instead?
The seemingly temporary reality of constantly checking phone notifications from GroupMe and glaring at the background window with Outlook on the computer for updates while pretending to do Anki may become our new normal. What is so hard about all of this is the indefinitely prolonged period of uncertainty and anxiety that has enshrouded all of our existences. We are not just in a transient crisis mode weathering one storm: we are running to and from supermarkets and stockpiling resources for an unknown period of time. When will the eye of this hurricane hit?
As future healthcare workers, we yearn to be a part of something greater than ourselves. With that said, being applauded for staying home, away from people in need, simply does not live up to the classroom and professional expectations of, say, taking part in a code to resuscitate a patient. We are being told to socially distance ourselves from our loved ones whether we feel healthy or unwell instead of being encouraged to offer in-person support to our neighbors and the elderly as is done during hurricane preparation.
For all that social media has done to bring us together virtually, we may begin to feel much more isolated in this day in age if we spike a fever or develop a cough and forcibly self-quarantine for weeks. We are spreading hashtags in isolation for flattening the curve while each of us helplessly watches our identities and sense of agency morph before our eyes.
COVID-19 does not hit as hard and fast as a Category 5 storm, and in the months that it has taken to reach and wreak havoc on New Yorkers it has also allowed more time for fear to set in. For all the virtues of an increasingly globalized world, we are witnessing greater connectivity leading to greater epidemiological risk and uncertainty. Unlike any hurricane or other weather catastrophe, uncontained and deadly viruses have even greater potential to tear through our physical connections with other people within our community. This ongoing crisis will continually question our resilience and our willingness to rally around those who need our support. In the months to come and in the inevitable pandemics to follow, as medical students and professionals we must reach out to each other to check in and offer a helping hand however possible. We must remain driven and motivated to get out of bed every morning and be willing to find ways to join efforts that change others’ lives for the better inside and outside of hospitals.