When I started my neurology residency in July 2019, I knew intern year was going to be challenging. In addition to navigating patient care, I had to learn to navigate the electronic health record, the maze-like hospital hallways, and the complex US healthcare system, just to mention a few. But I never imagined a pandemic would be on that list.
I recall getting fitted for a CAPR (Controlled Air Purified Respirator) and N95 mask prior to residency and thought, “I hope I will never need to wear these.” Then came March 2020 where I had to don both for the first time in residency. Wearing the CAPR especially felt like I was in a science fiction film with the heavy helmet, the large face shield, and the purified cold air blowing in my face. I knew they were designed to protect me, but the frustrating part was that it created a barrier that prevented me from connecting with my patients. I had to limit the number of times I visited my patients who were on contact precautions, all so I could prevent transmission to other patients and staff.
A few months prior, I treated PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) as disposable material. Now, they are precious commodities where I am limited to using one surgical mask per day, and reusing my one N95 mask. I even find myself checking my pockets frequently to ensure I do not lose them. The medical wards have adjusted to keep all COVID19 patients in specific units of the hospital. Patients tell me they are scared and avoid coming to the emergency room, fearing they will contract the virus. Some of us, including myself, have had to quarantine ourselves in order to protect our families.
The most difficult part of working as a physician during a pandemic is seeing patients alone in their room, patients dying alone, and hearing how helpless loved ones feel. Nowadays, I spend more time on the phone calling families to update them. In every conversation, I listen to how powerless they feel that they cannot be present to support the patient. Even though family members calmly acknowledge that staying away protects both the patient, the staff, and themselves, I always detect the waver in their voices telling me how difficult it is for them to stay strong in a vulnerable situation. The continuous flow of bad news and rapid changes has at times made me feel my work does not matter and has demotivated me. But seeing how appreciative the community is towards essential workers and hearing the innovative ways people are connecting, caring for each other, and showing compassion makes me appreciate how our actions work synergistically to bring hope and strengthen each other. As a healthcare provider, I want to say thank you to everyone who is doing their part to protect one another and carry each other forward. No matter how big or small, your deeds do not go unnoticed; in my eyes you are heroes.