People, not problems

The pace, the stress, the facelessness behind masks, and the lack of any real chance to connect made the patients blur together in my mind like never before.


“And then there's Mr. S. He's another COVID patient. Next is Mr. R, and guess what? He has COVID.”

We were in the middle of Houston's surge and this was not how I had imagined my first shift as an attending would go. I had prepared myself for defining team dynamics, setting the pace of rounds, and focusing on teaching my students and residents. Most of all, I was looking forward to spending more time with the patients. So much of my time as a resident was spent scrambling around, cranking out notes, putting out fires. I felt like I rarely had the time to make the human connections that drew me into medicine in the first place. This was supposed to be my chance to change that.

COVID had other plans: My time with the patients in residency felt like an eternity compared to this. Just the physical process of getting in and out of a patient's room became a burdensome and onerous task. Don the gear, enter the room, “How's your breathing?”, check the pulse ox, check work of breathing, doff the gear, get out, get out, get out! My conversations with the patients were brief, my physical exam even more so. The pace, the stress, the facelessness behind masks, and the lack of any real chance to connect made the patients blur together in my mind like never before. There is an anonymity and dehumanization that occur with practicing medicine during COVID. I didn't feel like I was a physician; I felt like I was just a medical problem manager.

Thankfully my tour of duty ended and the surge in Houston calmed down. I returned to the hospital one week later to supervise a second-year medical student practicing H&Ps on patients to prepare for his upcoming clinical rotations. Our first subject, an elderly man, was quite the talker. I stood there and listened to the most detailed history I had heard in years, as the student gave the patient space to share his story.

“What did you do for work before retirement?”

“Well, when I was seventeen, I decided it was time to leave the house and set out. . . .”

The social history went on for fifteen minutes like this. I was mesmerized.

Listening quietly, I felt a tension slowly melt away. Sitting in front of me was another human being, not a problem, not a virus—an individual, with a unique history and a meaningful life. My reverence for humanism, cooled to embers during residency and nearly stomped out by this pandemic, was still alive. I was reminded that COVID will not last forever. Right now we need to buckle up and do the hard work to get through this. As we do so, we will find—if we are attentive—that there are moments that can sustain us for the road ahead.