“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Happy Doctor’s Day to my fellow physicians. We don’t typically celebrate this day with any fanfare, but it often is a time where we feel as though our work matters, because someone thought at some point there needed to be a day to celebrate us.
Today, I would like all of us to remember how we got here.
I was eight years old when I decided to be a doctor. Actually, I initially said I would like to be a nurse, I come from a family of nurses, my great grandmother and my grandmother were both nurses. My mother offered me the option of being a doctor, it was casual, like—you should do this instead. From that moment on, I continued to consider other professions, engineer, mathematician, but I always came back to medicine.
I was destined to become a doctor. I think all of us were destined to be doctors.
I spent my twenties studying. I was the student that needed to study a lot, and for me to make it in medical school that meant creating class notes and study guides, and having a favorite spot in the library to do so. I learned discipline, I also learned that I hated long hours of studying, but I rationalized—it isn’t ‘actually’ physically painful, it is just hard to decide to review notes when friends are partying, or all you want to do is watch television. To survive, one must be laser-focused on an intangible future, one that also is filled with hard work and sacrifice. Before residency, medical school was the hardest thing I ever did.
Residency and fellowship followed. Six years of 80 hour work weeks, 2 weeks vacation a year and one weekend off a month. Our lives become consumed with our profession, whether we go into surgery or pediatrics, emergency medicine or orthopedics. For me, it was really hard to have relationships—both in and out of the hospital. The job becomes center-stage, it is demanding and unforgiving and leaves little room for anyone else. I used to joke that I couldn’t keep a plant alive, and could barely cook enough to keep myself fed. I would not have been a good partner and I was definitely not a good friend.
Because of these struggles and challenges, it is like we enter a club when we become physicians. It is a ’brotherhood’ and a lot of us feel most comfortable around each other. No one else fully understands the sacrifices we make to become physicians. One might try as they witness things from the outside, see us do our work, lend an ear as we cry, nod knowingly as we describe our exhaustion. But no one knows what it is like unless they have to do it. I see so much dedication and resilience in all of the physicians I know. I look at my colleagues with admiration, awe and deference because I know each have had a path, an arduous journey to get where they are today.
Today, for International Doctor’s Day 2020, we have COVID-19, and with it brings all kinds of feelings, but the one I am feeling most readily is grief.
Never in my life have I felt as much grief on a daily basis as I feel right now. We are in the middle of the worst disaster of my lifetime, patients are dying, and people are getting sicker than I or my colleagues have ever seen. We don’t know entirely how some people get infected and others don’t, and for the first time for most of us, we are worried about our own health. We are understanding that our profession now means possibly getting sick. This time, that illness is also deadly.
In a time when physicians should be lauded and listened to, for the mere fact that we are the only ones who can help some of these patients to live, we are faced with our own crises, which is an inability to protect ourselves. The country is facing a massive shortage of masks, gowns, and sanitizer. For those at home, this may not affect you, or it is a mild annoyance to hear it referenced or discussed on social media. For the healthcare providers on the front lines, it is devastating.
If you would have told me, years ago when I was a naive medical student, that the US would be facing the greatest pandemic in a century and the doctors and nurses working on the front lines didn’t have access to basic personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, I would have laughed at you. I would have told you that our country wouldn’t let that happen, that we would have a nationwide effort to protect the very people that are preventing even more death. But that is not true. There is no ‘nationwide’ effort. Our doctors and nurses continue to go to work everyday, some telling their families goodbye in order to care for the sick.
I am scared. I am scared for my own health, but more than anything I am scared for the health of my brothers and sisters in New York, in Louisiana, Florida and all over the world. People are dying, doctors are dying from being too exposed. We should be protecting the last line of defense (our healthcare field). It is unconscionable that we are not. We should be outraged and rioting in the streets. But we can’t, we are seeing patients, the sick and dying. We accept ‘makeshift’ masks from sympathetic strangers, we fashion gowns out of trash bags. And we hear of colleagues that die. And we go back to work. While the rest of the country mourns the loss of their freedom, we worry about our families, we worry about our friends, and we grieve.
We grieve as the patients get sicker, as the death toll rises and we ask ourselves, ‘what else can we do?’
We grieve as make sure our advance directives are signed and our wills are completed. We plead with family and friends to stay inside and die a little when we see pictures of the beaches in Florida. We don’t understand the lack of urgency from every government official and person in this country, and we feel like we are watching a train barreling toward a wall that no one fully sees. And we are so angry because some of our friends will die on that train. Some of us will die taking care of patients.
It is Doctor’s Day. To all of the doctors out there—I see you. I know what you have been through. I understand your anger and your grief. I cry with you every day. Be well, you are amazing.