Today, for the first time in seven weeks, I had my first real human contact. It was unexpected. Like many of you who work in hospitals right now, I have found myself unwittingly thrown into the havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic, trying my best to maintain at least an inch more sanity than my patients and colleagues. And, like many of you, I now find myself working in a hospital that has found itself unwittingly dedicated almost exclusively to COVID-19 patients.
I happened to be in one of our expanded ICUs when I had one of those previously normal, now oddly disturbing, double-take moments. That is, I saw a familiar face. (Sort of. All faces have gradually receded over this time, many of them slowly disappearing over the course of the crisis as we have increasingly hidden ourselves behind PPE; indeed, we have all become experts at recognizing eyes.) It was a grim face, and it took me a disconcertingly protracted moment to realize that, in fact, I knew it well. I just had not seen it in several months.
It was a face that belonged to our former ED charge nurse. A highly opinionated, fiercely demanding, even more fiercely loyal, huge-hearted hurricane force of a woman, who having recently semi-retired to an administrative position, had now volunteered to come back clinically as an ICU nurse. It did not surprise me at all, as I would never have expected her to sit this one out on the sidelines. I had known her for years from our contentious battles in the ED. And over those years, we had developed a grudging, at times edgy, but hard-earned respect for each other.
Still, I hadn’t seen her in a while. We caught each other’s surprised eyes at about the same time. She stood and, in typical fashion for her, marched right up to me. She stared at me for a second, really eye to eye, as we are similar height (and I am well over six feet tall). Every possible emotion associated with this COVID catastrophe flickered briefly but intensely across those eyes. And then, suddenly, she wrapped her arms tightly around me.
And she did something I had never seen or heard her do before.
Silently, she sobbed. For a good minute or more her tears flowed onto my shoulder, her own shoulders hitching and shuddering softly. And here she was, surely – in my opinion – the strongest, most resourceful, most resilient woman in the hospital, and she seemed, like the rest of us, so suddenly fragile.
And there we stood. Smackdab in the middle of the ICU, in the middle of a raging pandemic, a doctor and a nurse sharing a necessary hug, unrecognizable for all our protective garb, breaking all the rules of social distancing.
And no one said a damned thing. For here she was, bravely and helplessly, wordlessly yet eloquently expressing exactly how everyone else on that floor felt.
And I remember thinking that if I did ever get sick with this thing, these are the people I want taking care of me.
Elliott Martin, MD is a board-certified adult and child psychiatrist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, as well as the Director of Consultation and Emergency Psychiatric Services at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. He was a 2018–19 Doximity Author.
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Illustration by April Brust