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When COVID-19 Hits Home

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CAC Foreman 8th floor. Rapid response Klau 4. The voice that echoes in my head is the voice that comes from the speaker every few seconds.

As a first-year internal medicine resident in New York, the physical and emotional toll this pandemic placed on me is unmeasurable. My attending physician reminds me of someone commanding a battlefield. Others include my “allied residents”: doctors that chose different specialties but are now deployed to my floor, “coalition doctors”: students that graduated early to help us. Medicine has been replaced by wartime rhetoric. Unlike war, however, medicine is not a path by which any of us ever expected to lose our lives.

 Being on the front line of a global pandemic at a tertiary care center in one of the most populated cities in the world is not only surreal — it’s scary. This is not the type of scare you get from shopping for groceries at the supermarket; I was scared of potential cases I came in contact with, scared that my mask didn’t fit properly on my face, scared that I would touch it with dirty gloves by mistake. My face hurts from wearing a mask 13 hours a day. My head hurts from trying to find a mask in the chaos of people frantically searching for them.

As I walked into a shift one morning, I was handed a New York Yankees poncho to use as a gown. “Treat it like gold,” one hospital administrator said at a weekly COVID-19 town-hall conference. I can’t come into work without fearing for my life. At my hospital, a nurse I worked with a few weeks ago is now in critical condition in our ICU. Still, hospitals are firing personnel for speaking out, nurses are on leave for bringing their own protective gear, and physicians’ compensations are being cut. Heroic rhetoric means nothing when you are treated worse than a villain.

As the death toll continued to rise, I started taking a few seconds out of my day to hold my patient’s hands as they near death. I would close my eyes and stand in silence in the patient’s membrane because, in the chaos of it all, we have become so desensitized. Tomorrow is never promised. A few mornings later, I started having fever and chills. I was in stern denial, but this could no doubt be a surprise when you’re given nothing but a Yankees poncho and sent to war.

Worse, I could hear my grandfather, who I live with, coughing violently. What’s his oxygen saturation? How’s his breathing? These are questions I asked about strangers a few weeks ago, now — as I brought him to the ER — I couldn’t stop asking them in regard to my grandfather.

One of the horrors of being in the hospital during this time is that no family members can sit by your side. Medical workers are stretched so thin that there are not enough to look after everyone. The care for each patient inevitably becomes compromised. Day after day, I saw my grandfather through FaceTime. Truthfully, I felt blessed to be able to see him at all. I got to see him, and he got to see me, even if it was through a five-inch screen. It was our lifeline.

One of the calls you dread making as a doctor is telling a family member their loved one is dying. That was the call I received when my grandfather decompensated. We grow accustomed to making the call as clinicians, but we never expect to get it ourselves.

I felt for his pulse. Slow but faint. As a doctor, you become desensitized over time. You frantically think of the next steps that will save this body’s life, until you realize that body is someone you know.

Death during this time has no dignity. I’ve experienced a lot in my career. But this one felt particularly brutal. Patients are not allowed to have visitors and often die scared. Someone codes, someone dies, and on you go to save the next life.

A few days later, I prepared to head back to work. I thought about all the patients I treated for COVID-19, without ever thinking my grandfather would be one. As I headed into work around 7 p.m., I heard the sounds of people cheering outside. At that moment, I was no hero. I had just lost a war. I returned to the battlegrounds that altered my family forever.

Society needs to redirect energy to alleviating the struggles of workers rather than glorifying it. The government faltered, but it is the community advocates and organizers of grass-root campaigns that create reproducible change. The fact of the matter is, nobody wants to be a hero right now. We just want to live to see another day.

Zaki Y. Azam is a first-year internal medicine resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

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