Most of us didn’t deliberately set out to build the exact life we find ourselves living. Sure, we may have drafted a general blueprint, but the twists and turns are rarely scripted. I planned to be a physician, and that plan worked out. I am a critical care physician now. I didn’t plan to get critically ill at the end of training, nor did I plan to spend years seeing all of medicine from the vantage point of a very sick patient. That was a twist.
What that unexpected detour provided me with, as these things tend to do, was an ability to see beauty even amid tragedy. And though my health has recovered, that lens has stayed with me, which has proven to be incredibly useful during a pandemic. As a critical care physician at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, a city that has suffered tremendous losses, I train my eyes on the goodness emerging from our collective grief. The beauty comes to me in flashes of the smallest moments, mental images of the last six months.
One memory is of my friend, an I.C.U. nurse who couldn’t enter the hospice where her sister was succumbing to COVID-19. She instead clung to the glass for nine hours as her sister drew her final breaths. What she did was a beautiful act of love, in a time when demonstrating our affection was constrained by policies and contagion. She reminded me that we know how to cherish each other, even amid risks. Now when I approach rooms of patients dying with no family to comfort them, I see my friend clinging to the window.
At the bedside of a patients on the verge of being placed on breathing machines, I hear the voice of a man we treated early in the pandemic. In respiratory distress, he asked if we were sure that there wasn’t anyone who needed a ventilator more than he did, because he’d lived a good life and had made peace with his God.
I hear him now; he’s there when the patients sense they are in trouble. He reminds me that in this city of grace and grit we know how to sacrifice. We know that individual health means nothing without community wellbeing.
On the hardest days, I’ll glance at a piece of paper and recall these words: “We’re praying for your husband.” They were hastily scrawled by a nurse in the COVID drive-through testing line and held against the car window of a young woman who had driven up for testing. Through tears, she informed us that she’d been exposed to her husband, who was dying of COVID in the I.C.U. He did die, and she survived. She’s been lifted and carried by the love of her community.
This pandemic threw a giant twisting curve into all our lives. But, as is true of all things, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. What do we want to remember of ourselves when this crisis is long past us? There’s still time to write that story. We’re still in the middle of it. And what I’ve seen, what I know is that we have in our hearts an innate capacity for self-sacrifice, for love and generosity. We care about each other and we know that we are stronger together than we could ever hope to be alone. We know in our bones that our individual health is dependent on the health of our communities.
That is why I urge you, as a doctor and I.C.U. survivor, to wear a mask: because it doesn’t just shield you, it protects the people you might be infecting. Unwittingly, people without symptoms are infecting and killing their friends and loves ones. Please, practice social distancing, especially when you’re indoors. Avoid crowds. Avoid the noise on social media. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Honor the sacrifices that have been made by everyone, but especially honor our patients, who would give anything to have the choices you have now.
Our values have a collective existence. The connections between us make us who we are. We are in this together and we need to act like it. So, what I’m asking of you is simple. Do a small good thing. Check on a neighbor, make a dent in someone else’s loneliness, smile behind your mask, demonstrate tolerance. Be the reason that someone believes in the good of people.
Act in service of the ideal that our hearts are bigger than we can imagine, we have the capacity to be kinder than we know, and we are stronger together. And together we will get through this.
This piece was originally published in Detroit Free Press.