I stand outside the COVID-19 ICU, after putting on all my protective gear. While doing so, I realize that the most integral part is missing. The n95 mask. Thankfully, after a few minutes of waiting, and after calling a few of my friends who were working the same day, a mask arrives. I finish what we call the “donning procedure.” I take a deep breath. And I let myself in.
It’s an eerie experience, 12 intensive care unit beds, every patient on a ventilator, some awake, some asleep, some sedated, some with tears in their eyes. Their families are not allowed in the room, because due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, hospitals have changed their rules. No more visitors. Those who leave their loved ones in our care have no idea if that was their last goodbye.
At the hospitals I work at, and hospitals across the country, protocols have tightened to protect our patients, their families, and the public from COVID-19. But the sight of an empty waiting area outside the ICU leaves me uneasy, and worried. We’ve never really experienced anything like this before, and I am honestly unprepared.
Each time I enter a room, the threat of aerosolized particles of the virus play tricks on my mind. Any tingle in the back of my neck makes the hair raise on my arms. I ask myself, “What the heck am I doing here?”
I enter all the same, and as I stand in front of the patient, all I can say is, “I’m Dr. Cabral, I’ll be one of the people taking care of you today.” Not exactly the most comforting of words. I know they’d much rather have a daughter, a son, or their spouse in there with them – to encourage them, to tell them to fight and to hold on. But at this moment, it’s just me. And I really have no clue what to say…. I muster a, “Don’t worry sir, it’s going to be ok.” And I just pray that I’m right.
The isolation is just as painful as the infection. The lonely deaths caused by this coronavirus loom over all that are caught in its wake. Unfortunately, it is really all up to us, the healthcare workers seeing these patients and standing there at the front lines, to find ways to maintain connection, balancing our fear with compassion. At this point we are all expected to be that doctor, the one who sits at the bedside, who holds out a hand, who explains how things are going even if we have no idea what these patients will remember.
It’s up to us to keep the families involved. No easy task. Many a patient or a patient’s family member now have my phone number and have access to me on my social media accounts. I come home weary from the day that has passed to be greeted by messages from families and relatives wanting to know how their loved one is doing.
Did I plan on having to do this? Honestly, there was no plan. At least not one I can honestly say I was prepared to execute. But our humanity requires that we extend our assistance to those in need and I’ve never been one to deprive a fellow human being assistance when it was needed.
My colleagues on the front line, in the emergency room, on the floors, and in the intensive care units will never admit it, but we all carry with us the invisible scars of battle.
The anxiety, the fear, the depression. Not for ourselves, but for our patients. We all want to be able to see these patients walk out of the hospital but at the same time accept that we can’t save them all.
I was thinking about this as I drove to work today, through the quarantine checkpoints, and as I walked the hospital hallways into COVID-19 ICU. Streets empty, hallways empty, waiting areas empty. It seemed like a scene from a suspense movie about some virus that swept the world leaving wounded patients, doctors and families in its wake.
At the end of the day, I said goodbye to my patients, saddened, that I had to leave them there alone. I thought of my colleagues who would now be coming in to take my place; may they be protected and blessed, may peace and joy fill their minds and hearts. And may they do a better job than I did the shift before.