In scary times, humanity brings us together, pulls us through
By Prateek Harne, MD
"I am very scared,” my patient said, as my heart raced. She wasn’t the only one.
As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic has reached more than 800,000 cases worldwide, and the number is still rising.
I am a resident physician working at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. I was mentally prepared to see these cases in our hospital, but when I did — in the context of what we know about this virus so far — it left me changed.
Doctors are trained to listen calmly and to understand and validate our patients’ anxiety. Through numerous encounters, we are equipped to handle these situations so that our patients feel acknowledged and relieved after we have had a conversation with them.
Every now and then there comes an interaction that leaves an indelible impact.
My first encounter with a COVID-19 positive patient is something I will never forget. She had been admitted three days earlier, and I was asked to evaluate her, as her oxygen requirements had dramatically increased. As I stood in her room, my heart was racing. I didn’t quite realize it in the moment, but I was scared.
With a distinct heaviness in her breath, she told me how nice everyone has been to her in the hospital. I thanked her. After examining her, I told her that we would need to insert a tube into her airway for her to breathe better, and she replied by telling me she was very scared. I held her hand and told her it takes courage to do what she was doing.
She asked me to call her husband, who was being quarantined at home after testing positive, and tell him that she loved him a lot. I did what she asked, and he asked me if I could tell her the same.
Four days later, she passed away due to severe respiratory failure, despite maximal medical supportive therapy.
Since then, every time I have entered the room of a patient with a potential COVID-19 infection I have felt scared — scared that I will infect other patients, my colleagues or my loved ones.
Health care providers internalize or forget the emotional toll the job can take. We walk into work, smiling, calm and composed. We portray a version of ourselves that is undeterred by the uncertainty associated with this pandemic, even as we all know that we are scared.
During these times, we find ourselves going back to something that makes us human. Something unrelated to this pandemic that threads us together. From singing songs in solidarity, to donating to hospitals, to offering help to health care providers, to staying at home and maintaining social distance — all of this tells us that each one of us is doing our part. I find my salvation in writing.
There is a lot to worry about amidst the increasing incidence, high transmissibility, non-conclusive treatment modalities, potential scarcity of personal protective equipment, crashing economy and unemployment that this world is facing — that you and I face.
But if we take one day at a time and calmly focus on our role in this fight, then we might be able to see the light at the end of this tunnel.
I am a soldier in this battle, I am fighting my piece, and I ask you to fight yours. Breathe and keep fighting.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay, written by Prateek Harne, MD, first appeared on CNN.com
This article is from the spring 2020 Upstate Health magazine, a special edition dealing with the coronavirus.