COVID-19’s unwelcome entry into our lives has carried with it a humbling recognition of what life means. The pandemic brought every single human being on this planet together through shared anxiety and uncertainty.
The illness rapidly swept over the globe, and precious lives were lost. Families were separated from one another, and the opportunities to say goodbye were snatched away without preparation.
Everyone’s lives changed overnight, and the plan was to do everything in our power to avoid contracting COVID-19. For some, it meant staying at home and quarantining. For others, it meant wearing whatever PPE was available and saying a prayer.
COVID-19 also led us to another discovery. Doctors and patients now walked similar paths of risk and could talk about it with one another. No one was spared from the possibility of getting sick, and they shared a moment of mutual understanding.
Every time I asked a patient how they felt, it was immediately followed with a sincere inquiry of how I was feeling as well. There was a deep longing to know how the other was surviving, and hopefully, thriving. It gave strength to my patients to know that their experience could be understood. The pandemic offered an opportunity to sit on neutral ground together.
It’s extremely difficult to be a doctor when you have more questions than answers, especially when those answers may not hold true the next day. COVID-19 has given the medical world pause. We are expected to be the ones who can find solutions and have multiple resources to go to for reference. What are we supposed to do when we don’t have that capacity? That is hard to swallow. Humbling oneself by sharing what we do not know with our patients — while not making them feel abandoned — is one of the most important qualities of being a doctor.
The concept of a support group is to create a feeling of belonging. By sitting together with my patients through the struggles of this pandemic, the therapeutic effect is evident. Their tears start to fall, they recognize they are not as paralyzed in action as they thought they were, hope starts to spring, and the whole purpose of being a doctor shines through. I am able to help them through dark times. Sometimes being a healer simply means to hold space.
I have always honored and cherished every relationship I had. I see my patients as unique lives and try to imagine being in their shoes, but there’s always been a degree of separation. I hesitate to tell patients that I know how they feel when they tell me about their issues because the truth is that I have never known. No one can truly know what another person is suffering through. We can be empathic, caring, and compassionate, but telling patients we know negates their individual experience. I consciously avoid minimizing their experience.
For the first time, I can share their grief. They are not living through the fear of the unknown by themselves. There is comfort in knowing that.
Now, the globe has a support group of 7 billion people. Each of those 7 billion now shares something in common. COVID-19 has changed their lives forever. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to serve a small portion of that population, even if it’s to simply relate that I am a human with them.
Dr. Kumar is a family medicine, palliative care, and functional med doctor whose career path changed four months ago when Boston was hit with COVID and has been testing and caring for patients with COVID since.
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