Throughout history, physicians have been called to write. I am not just speaking of academic non-fiction and textbooks but of creative fiction, memoir, personal essays, and even fiction. Oliver Sacks’ non-fiction opened our eyes to the neuroatypical and the amazing workings of the brain. Michael Crichton’s fiction shook us with tales of alien germs, cowboy robots, and modern dinosaurs. Danielle Ofri’s insightful essays share the human side of being a physician.
As I write this, it’s April 2020. At the time we are in the early days of what is being called The Year of CoVid-19. I can only hope 2020 is its last year. The contagious and deadly Coronavirus pandemic that emerged in late 2019 has brought our world to a collective pause.
Social isolation has rapidly become the new normal. For some, quarantine, is more appropriate. Parks, gyms, and schools are closed. Millions have filed for unemployment. Uncertainty has seeped into every aspect of life, along with fear.
Technology, something criticized as making us all anti-social is strangely the only way we can now be social. Stark distinctions have and had to be made. We are either essential or non-essential. We either telework or we don’t. We are either sick or scared we will be.
Deep in that swirling haze sits physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and all their support staff—essential in many different ways. Some work in Emergency Departments, packed wards, and ICUs; others huddle in urgent care, make-shift tent clinics, and in public health departments shuffling logistics to keep it all going.
I am considered essential. I am a pediatrician working for my county’s Department of Public Health. These days I work at a desk, trying to make our convoluted healthcare system work a little smoother for chronically sick and disabled youngsters and the people who care for them. I respect the power of the human body to thrive and heal. But I never underestimate the power of disease to overwhelm and confound the body’s status quo with no warning.
I am also a writer. I know a big story when I see one. I know the power of a transforming moment. You don’t need me to tell you that we are there. But when I got up this morning at 4:30 am, after checking myself for fever, respiratory symptoms, and body aches, it occurred to me that this was also a moment for physicians to tell their stories.
Lately, my medical school classmates and I have been chatting more on social media. I am proud of their accomplishments. I am proud when they say “this is what I signed up for.” I love their sense of humor amidst this maelstrom of illness, risk, shortages, uncertainty, and death. I want them to share their stories. I want you to hear how wonderful, brave, and focused they are.
Did you stand next to a trembling teen whose icy tough-guy exterior just crumbled in a cough-racked torrent of tears? Did you hesitate to hug him?
Did you take another call from the parent asking for someone—anyone, please—to help repair her child’s broken wheelchair?
Did you hold the hand of a dying colleague, an ER doctor always first to a code?
Did you gulp back tears and keep working?
Did you consider calling in sick just to sleep?
Did you struggle to assure a pharmacy they’d get paid for dispensing an extra three months of insulin?
Did you unplug your television set for peace from all the political distortion?
Did you strip naked in the garage and wash off in the rust-filled sink in the corner to avoid bringing germs into your home?
Did you worry about where you can get another thousand masks for your staff?
Did you hesitate before hugging your kids?
Do you worry if all you’ve done would be enough?
Physicians who write do so because we must. Just like other writers. Who else could tell our story? We are a unique profession, shrouded in mystery, and awash in waves of certainty and uncertainty. We are known but not known. We are revered and, at times, reviled. We are blamed. We blame ourselves.
Those of us that write, must do so. We do it for a multitude of reasons. Here are a few. There are more.
To Bear Witness to the humanity within the events unfolding around us
People are not mere numbers. They sweat, they cry, they resist, and they rejoice. They breathe and struggle to continue breathing, even as we use our skills and our machines to take over for them. They are “in there” and we are in it with them.
Of course, we have to count, define and clarify. That’s part of the scientific method. That’s what led us to antibiotics, vaccinations, dialysis machines, and mechanical ventilators. But the ultimate reasons we do it lay in beds and couches all across the globe.
To express your anguish as a physician
Witnessing pain takes a toll. It is a reality of medicine that to end suffering sometimes one must create suffering. From needles to surgery and dressing changes, stuff we do to help can hurt. Bringing pain and being associated with it hardens some and wounds others. Acknowledging this helps.
To Show yourself
Staying behind a mask and inside gowns and gloves, for now, means our humanity is seen even less than usual. Watch our eyes. Feel the squeeze of our hands. We are with you.
To start your own healing
One day, we will all need to heal. It starts with giving voice to the experience. It continues with honoring your role in the events. When the emotions flow—and they will—find your process, find your voice.
Mine is with words. I’ll be writing to find courage. I’ll write to remember. I’ll write to find meaning. Won’t you join me?