I cradle a fragile baby whose heart cannot support her growth. I have fed her, bathed her, changed her diaper, rocked her to sleep, and measured her meds in drips per second, all in the hope that she will gain enough weight to withstand surgery.
I take the baby to sit in the playroom because I know her eyes will sparkle to the sound of little voices. She coos as we sit among chattering toddlers with clanging IV poles.
Suddenly her eyes go dull, and she is limp in my arms. Blood erupts from her mouth with a guttural sound. She is choking. Blood is gushing, hitting me in my face, my neck, my chest. My throat is a spasm of panic. I can’t call for help.
I hear “Treatment room! Treatment room, Maddy!” I clutch the baby tight against me and run. Doors are flung open. I lurch forward and someone begins pulling my arms open, peeling the baby away from me as my shirt stretches and snaps back against my skin, sticky with blood. The overhead lamp is blinding. My chest, where I just held her, is cold and wet. I am shivering as the team surges around …
Healing Beyond the Wound
My ICU room is quiet, except for the interruption of the sounds made by equipment attached to me. My most important visitor, my wife, has gone home for the evening. Thoughts of despair and brokenness begin to creep in. I contemplate what life after emergency, life-saving, open-heart surgery will be like for my wife, and will she recover from the trauma and fear she has endured.
As Editha, the nightshift ICU nurse, enters my room to take my blood sugar reading, I ask if I can have some morphine for the pain. With a smile, she responds by asking me what I think the result of the test will be. I make a guess, followed by her telling me what her guess is. I believe she won that first round.
Rather than yearning for morphine as she approaches me an hour later, I focus on playing and winning our game. Editha is purposeful, thoughtful, and kind to give me a mental break from the pain I endure. She does not have to do this; she chooses to offer this little thing, our game, for my benefit.
Walking around the nurse’s station for the first time after surgery, nurse Barbara greets …
El Jugo Me Hizo Daño
I toss and turn in bed, trying to fall back asleep; I have only a small cushion of time between getting up and heading to the hospital. I’m a third-year medical student doing my medicine subinternship. I have the choice of going to work or staying in bed a little longer.
On the other side of town, Ms. Garcia doesn’t have much choice about heading to the hospital: She’s bleeding from her nose and rectum. Standing in a puddle of blood, she calls 911.
A New Year’s Resolution: Make Every Breath Count
As the final hours of 2020 approach, I try to tie up the loose ends as I sign over our busy inpatient service to the next attending physician. As I do so, my mind begins reflecting on the first nine months of this pandemic.
The hardest part has not been the hassle of donning and doffing the PPE. Nor, figuring out how to optimize drug dosages to best treat patients with COVID. The hardest parts are these: finding inner quiet among the incessant overhead rapid response alerts; learning to treat the loneliness and despair visible in my patients’ eyes; and, when treatment fails, helping them die in dignity.
Those are the hardest parts for me as a physician. As a parent, the hardest part is learning to be fully present–even in my despair–for my own child, who is navigating puberty, social isolation and loneliness.
These nine months have taught me many lessons.
I’m reminded how complex we humans are. Some of my patients, paralyzed by fear of the virus, have completely isolated themselves. Others, triggered by fear of isolation, indulge in reckless social behaviors. In caring for my patients, I’ve found myself navigating these extremes.
The second lesson I’ve learned is …
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During a routine Thursday evening clinic, I knock on the exam room door, enter, and greet my patient. She is an elderly Puerto Rican woman with worsening Type 2 diabetes, a new bleeding sore on her face, and chronic back pain.
As I log onto the computer, my patient and her niece discuss how guapa I am, and I blush silently. The patient smiles, at ease, as her niece laughs wildly, such music to my ears.
As this visit concludes, we plan a telemedicine follow-up in three months. My sweet patient forgoes her pre-pandemic kisses and hugs, and instead says to me, in rapid Spanish: “May God keep you safe, bless your children, and protect your husband. Take care of yourself, my kind doctor. You have helped me so much. I pray for you and your family.” This song fills the room – and then heals my heart.
Immediately my mind flashes to my family’s weekly Friday evening dinner, when husband and I place our hands on our daughters’ heads. When they were younger, they would squirm, smile and laugh in response. Now, as teenagers, they grudgingly grant us this privilege – to bless them in the Jewish tradition. After we recite the Hebrew prayer, …
Something Wagging This Way Comes
For five years I had the privilege and honor of visiting hospital patients as a pet therapy volunteer with my springer spaniel, Baker. During those years, when I also cared for elderly parents, the smiles of patients and clinical staff and gratitude for the pet therapy visits sustained me. I couldn’t stop my parents’ decline, but I could brighten a stranger’s day.
Pet therapy rounds required me to adapt to each patient’s situation and allow the visit to unfold. When we entered the room, the mood became lighter; solemn faces broke into smiles. Some patients wanted to quietly stroke Baker’s soft fur. I’d push a chair next to the bed, so Baker could sit within reach. Others wanted him to lie next to them on the bed, on a clean sheet I’d spread on top. It could be challenging to hoist a 45-pound spaniel on to the bed, avoiding monitor wires, tubes and catheters. But I managed, with liberal hand sanitizer applied to anyone who touched Baker. He’d been bathed and groomed that morning.
Staff welcomed our visits as well: a respite from their stressful routines; a means to comfort a patient struggling with despair.
I don’t know what Baker …
When the shutdown came last March in Michigan, I could not attend my favorite (only) granddaughter’s wedding in Toronto, but she included me on FaceTime. I struggled with Zoom for City Council and Zoning meetings: many of us were fighting the building of a parking ramp in our neighborhood. From my window, I watched as crowds gathered at the Capitol, twice, to protest the shutdown, with kids, flags, blasting car horns and guns. My daughter in California threw a joyful 80th birthday party for me on Zoom, with family attending from four states and Canada. One day I was down, the next up.
I recorded these events in a Covid-19 journal I started keeping. I also recorded the increasing numbers of Covid-19 deaths in the state.
I have multiple sclerosis. For four months I did not have close contact with another person. I wore a mask to go to the mailbox. But mid-July, I held my breath and did my own grocery shopping, at 7am.
In the Fall, I monitored the development of vaccines. I had been a member of the IRB at Michigan State University (MSU), and the fast track made me nervous. I was concerned when the FDA …
A Losing Game
As a child, I played a game called “Mother, May I.” Because I usually forgot to say the correct words—“Mother, may I?”–I spent most of the game retreating several steps instead of moving forward.
I often think of this childhood game as I try to heal—mentally, physically and emotionally—from almost eleven months of self-isolation in a world that has stolen my job, my theater and my social interactions from me. Yet, every time I feel as if I am healing—moving forward in acceptance and hope—I descend further into the darkness.
My children and friends tell me to stop watching the news, but I am obsessed with knowing the latest updates about everything. “Get a vaccine,” the guest physician on a newscast tells me. “A vaccine will protect you from a severe case of COVID-19.” That sounds good, but every time I go online to find a site giving vaccines, I am told that no appointment is available. Not even for a 73-year-old woman who becomes feebler with each passing day. That is not a healing message.
The Cultural Trust of my city emails me that the Broadway Series and Cabaret will return in the fall. However, they always add the …