Doctors are human

At this moment, I am the only one walking toward the building that towers before me. Even the birds are practicing social distancing.

We learn in the preclinical years about the basics of our bodies. Together, cells work 24/7 in order for a human to function. At a recent third-year medical student clerkship orientation, I led the icebreaker: Say your name and favorite body system, organ, cell, organelle, or molecule. One of the favorites: endoplasmic reticulum.

The endoplasmic reticulum manufactures and transports molecules. It has a rough side and a smooth side. It synthesizes something from nothing. It networks to places beyond its own location. It bears so much function for such a microscopic organelle.

On Feb. 6, 2020, I learn of the death of a doctor in China due to COVID-19. He was a 34-year-old man. I am a 34-year-old woman. I work as an internist in the same academic medical center where I began my training. Those who taught me are now colleagues on the front line.

One morning this spring, my commute is a breeze. The California highway is as deserted as the local chaparral. The medical center campus is quiet. At this moment, I am the only one walking toward the building that towers before me. Even the birds are practicing social distancing.

My patient's door is closed. The designated door monitor sees me abide by the infection precautions—wash hands, don personal protective equipment. A sign glares at eye level, “STRICTLY NO VISITORS.” As if opening the starship door after landing on a different planet, I enter the room. I am his visitor.

He is alert. He is breathing. He is speaking in full sentences. I exhale.

I see rain hitting his window and express my surprise. He enjoys the rain. We discuss his activities of daily living, his diagnoses, and plan for the day. I perform doctor wizardry and upon the end of the encounter, I inform him that I will follow up with his nurse, pharmacist, specialists, and primary care physician. I exit his room, back to a thunderous rainstorm of inpatient care.

After rounds, I return to my sterilized desk. I join the first of numerous teleconferences. I change the email notification settings in order to break the Pavlovian cycle of stress that I've conditioned myself to in recent weeks. I blow the dust off of research projects. I make new connections with health care professionals in communities across the state, nation, and globe. I check in on my colleagues. I stretch my fingers and exhale.

Dr Hofmann with her children
Dr. Hofmann with her children

At home with my children, I begin a handwashing song. The two-year-old attempts to dovetail her digits, bubbles overflowing and a look of determination on her face. The three-year-old is belting the song loudly, commanding the room from the top of her stepstool. As she dries her hands, she asks me if we can go to a local store. With the recent county ordinance, the store is closed, so I respond, “No.”

“Why can't we go shopping?”

“Because of a global virus.”

“What's a virus?”

“A germ.”