February 1, 2021

A Year of Covid-19 – The Tale of an ICU Doctor

Last year at this time, I was nervous. Covid-19 was a new disease, hitherto unknown, and causing frightening and critical illness. It was very contagious, and I feared contraction, getting sick or worse, infecting my family. At the same time, it was an opportunity to join a fight against a global threat and be part of something historic.  That thrill went away very quickly.

COVID-19 patients I’ve treated are the sickest I have ever seen, often getting worse at a frightening speed.  And they stay very ill for a very long time. Despite all I do, many follow the same pattern: they come to the ICU, they get placed on a ventilator, stay in the ICU for weeks, and then they die. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Those of us on the front lines are not just tired; we are exhausted. Just the other night, during my telemedicine ICU shift, the charge nurse in the ICU told me – after another patient just died – “I am so tired of this.” All I could say was, “I know. We all are.”

In the beginning, I focused on the long game with high aspirations of healing a vast majority of cases. Now, I take it day by day, and every patient I cure is a win. This helps me cope with the patients I can’t save. Similarly, it is how I dealt with my daughter’s inevitable death, who passed away of cancer in 2009. I knew that I would bury her one day, but I lived in the moment. It helped me from going absolutely crazy.

The reality of what we are facing is not pretty. And so all of us need to look out for one another. We need to check in on one another and see how we are coping. We need to have a “battle buddy,” someone to whom we can talk and share our experiences and feelings. Many organizations – including Sound Physicians – have Peer Responder programs, where trained peers can field phone calls from colleagues about a difficult patient, or a difficult day, or whatever. I am honored to be one of those Peer Responders for Sound.

In addition to these and other resources, we need to do those things that help us reduce stress, whatever it is. At a very minimum, we need good sleep and a healthy diet to help ward fatigue.  Exercise will help alleviate stress too. Many people use personal time to work on an outside passion or hobby. For me, writing has been a life-saver. I have written numerous blog posts and even poetry about COVID and my experiences. I am also very blessed to have colleagues gracious to reach out and ask me how I’m doing.

I hope and pray that this pandemic will soon be over. The vaccine is undoubtedly bringing us hope, promise, and a morale boost. I am so tired of the “Lather. Rinse. Repeat” cycle. Even as more and more people are vaccinated and we inch ever more closely to herd immunity, there will still be patients with COVID-19 who are sick and need our care. We need to be ready – both physically and emotionally – to provide that care. And we need to do all that we can to care for one another. It is literally a matter of life and death.

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