“I’ve been practicing emergency medicine for approximately 20 years. I’ve worked through countless tragedies and am used to dealing with the daily grind of heart attacks, gunshots, strokes, flu, traumas, and other calamities. It’s part of my field’s curriculum. Nothing, however, has made me feel the way I do about my ‘career’ as much as this pandemic has—that knot in the pit of your stomach as you walk into work, reassured only by the empathic expressions of my coworkers who are experiencing the same thing. I am glad for their presence, knowing that they are with me both practically and metaphorically and that they understand and embrace the risks we take every day. I also hope that my friends and family forgive me for being absent during this time—exactly when we need each other the most—and that they understand that the words, support, and simple gestures they send my way daily are the fuel that keeps me going. This is a story that we can all relate to.
On my first genuine ‘pandemic’ shift, I met Mr. C, and what we were experiencing that day was exactly what we had been preparing for. We just knew he was classic in his presentation, X-ray findings, and low oxygen levels. He was also the most excellent man I’d met in quite some time. He kept asking whether we needed anything and assuring us that everything would be fine. He said that he was a teacher but that he was learning a lot from us and admired what we were doing. The polar opposite is more accurate than ever.
We needed to consider how long we would try to push him through the low oxygen stage before intubating him. His blood pressure continued to drop, and despite our best efforts, it was time to put him on a ventilator. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation. ‘But Doc, I trust you, and I’m placing myself in your hands,’ he added. In that time, the uncomfortable feeling in my gut grew even more vital. But he kept me grounded, where I was supposed to be, with his teacher’s firm voice. Even as we pushed the drugs to put him to sleep, I watched his eyes looking at me, seeing the tenderness in them. To say the intubation was simple would be an understatement. It was not the case. During those first minutes, he came close to abandoning us a few times, but he kept coming back. We put up a valiant effort to keep him with us. That day, my team’s patience and strength were simply astounding.
I handed him over to Dr. Beth Ginsburg and her colleagues in the ICU, and her reassuring voice told me that they would take care of him. Then I waited and monitored his progress over the next twelve days, knowing the statistics and how unwell he was when he arrived. They worked their magic, and my new friend Mr. C was extubated just yesterday. I decided to meet him once more.
Mr. C was rehabilitating in the COVID step-down facility, away from his family. Nobody was allowed to visit him, and his wife had also been isolated at home for the preceding 14 days. My heart wrenched when I realized how difficult that must have been for her. I slowly entered his room, wearing my PPE, and he came to a halt when he spotted me. It was a flash of recognition.
I took the opportunity to introduce myself. Mr. C., my name is Dr. Akbarnia. In the emergency room, I was the last person you saw. You said you trusted us to get you over to the other side. ‘It appears that you did just fine.’ He began to cry. ‘I remember your eyes,’ he murmured. And then I started crying. He didn’t comprehend that I recognized right then and there that we do what we do for people like him, for moments like these. His courage, kindness, and soothing words meant everything to me. My heart, which had been racing at over 100 beats per minute since the outbreak began, finally slowed down at that point.
We talked when I sat down. I informed him that we were his family while he was here. In my heart, he will always hold a special place. And, whether he realizes it or not, he will be my quiet fighter and mentor as I care for all of my patients, COVID and not. He’ll keep me going till the day I put down my stethoscope.”
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