On service in the time of coronavirus

This week of PTO puts me in an interesting place.

I am a father. I care for a small household. Bills to pay. A dog to walk. Paychecks to juggle. A growing toddler and a partner to love.

During this time of uncertainty, I am lucky because my ability to provide for my family is not in question. As a resident, I know I have a paycheck coming. I am so thankful to have what we need.

Many of my friends are WFH: working from home. Normal routines disrupted by new routines. As a result of this PTO, I feel like I have joined the WFH coalition. I leave the house for groceries, and see masked faces looking back at me.

This experience of home life is undercut by the very notion that it shall end. I will return to the hospital. The hospital where the surge is occurring.

When I left the inpatient unit, we providers wore masks and goggles to protect the patients from the virus.

When I return to the unit, now the patient will wear masks to protect themselves.

I am hearing stories of the ICU denying patient transfers.

And that leads to the second side. I am a physician with a set of skills useful to this current pandemic. Maybe I cannot manage a vent or run a code with confidence. But, I can navigate a challenging goals of care conversation. I can talk with a person on the ledge.

During this PTO, shouldn’t I use my skills? Shouldn’t I share in this collective, once-in-a-generation trauma of the coronavirus? Sure, I will get mine, but if I go back for seconds, surely that lightens the load for someone else?

I struggle with this idea of service during the pandemic. Who do I serve? And to what extent do I serve?

Should I revel in my PTO? Take it as a wonderful escape from the harsh reality, to which I will return? Shouldn’t I focus on my family first?

And were I in the hospital, I am sure I would yearn for time away. To hunker down with my family, and to avoid risking myself for the nebulous “others”.

There is a terrible sense of needing to do more, which will never be truly satisfied, coupled with the desire to run away and leave the problem to someone else. I suppose it is the fight or flight response, writ large as a medical professional.

And is there a third option?

What would that look like? Feel like?

When I look in my backyard, I see the relentless approach of spring. I see the flowers sprouting from the ground. My son loves to pick the bright yellow dandelion flowers. I hear an orchestra of songbirds.

Yes, we must prepare for the season ahead. Unchecked and mindless growth yields destruction. A few moments of calm can render hours of turmoil unnecessary.

How silly I would feel if I stamped and shouted at the sapling, demanding for more or asking why aren’t they this or that.

It is growing, and that is painful. I am trying to appreciate the sapling for what it is. Not for what it will be or could be. To ask a sapling to be anything else is to ask the impossible.

And so what is that third option? And who do I serve?

I believe the third option is kindness and appreciation, rather than judgment and expectations.

I am trying very hard to do the ‘right thing’, even when that ‘right thing’ is actually just neurotic nonsense. For now, the act of trying is good enough.

Who do I serve? Myself and others. In that order.

Sometimes, like now, I may focus more on myself than others. I cannot give what I do not have.

I appreciate that part of me that wants to contribute to the collective. I must remind myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

So let’s tape up our gross toes and eat an orange slice.

Rest when we can. Run when we must. Love always.

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