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Maybe the new normal is better than the old normal

For a primary care doc working and living in New York City, the current version of health care, and herself never looked normal

Me celebrating a much needed break (up) from my routine
Me celebrating a much needed break (up) from my routine

Last week, a patient asked me a question that had me thinking well after our conversation ended: “Doc, will things ever get back to normal?” I paused, because I really wasn’t sure. And then I thought, “Do we want to get back to normal?”

What this patient didn’t realize is that “normal” means going back to a system that bankrupts its citizens with high costs, and achieves maximum profit from doctor visits and every aspect of treatment. It means going back to a system that favors those who are rich and White. Do we really want to go back to a system that feeds racial and social inequality? One that is hyper focused on treating disease, rather than preventing it, simply because it generates more profit? If we measured our civility as a society on the current physical health of our nation, we would fall just short of barbarism. This should not be our normal. 

The coronavirus has hit us like a bomb that we knew was ticking but were ignoring. My city has become the epicenter, and my patients the most affected. My patients still clamor to get COVID tests. They wait for weeks to get tested as the health of their families hangs in the balance. They can’t stay home, because their jobs are essential: they’re home care workers for the elderly, grocery store workers, and transit workers. On top of this, they have small children at home, and are caring for elderly parents. They want to know why it’s so hard to get tested, and every out-of-pocket copay, or rebuttal with “that’s not covered by your plan” is a reminder that something is not right with our system. If the failures of our broken system were ever hidden, the crisis has put them plain sight. We as doctors like to pretend that patients don’t recognize these failures, but they smell the proverbial shit, and it stinks. 

Our federal government has botched the response to a true national emergency. The price of medical supplies has surged. Hospitals have become inundated with very sick patients, without adequate supplies or the personnel to care for them. Several local hospitals have had to take it upon themselves to raise money for food and personal protective equipment. New York City bought 45 refrigerated truck trailers to store bodies in because city morgues are strapped for space to store the deceased. 

Meanwhile, community clinics and private practices struggle to stay afloat because patients are staying home and these clinics rely on patients’ money in lieu of government funding. Private practice doctors recount the loss of their businesses on social media, and many talk about leaving medicine all together because it’s just too much to bear. 

Before this crisis, I was unraveling on the inside. I was going through the motions of life like a robot. Work. Home. Kid. Dinner. More work. Sleep. Rinse, Repeat. I rushed through the days hoping that I’d have a few moments to myself at the end of it. But I was just too tired. Every morning when I looked at myself in the mirror, my droopy eyes told the story of how I felt…. like a complete mess. When my clinic closed down because some of my colleagues fell ill with the virus, my tiresome routine disappeared, and I was forced to slow down. Instead of enjoying new-found relaxation, slowing down spurred a state of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. I became awash in a sea of WTF moments as I felt the system crumbling under my feet. Slowly I began to make room for the things that I had been missing. I’ve gone back to the simple things that made me happy. The question has shifted from “What do I have to do right now?” to “What do I want to do right now?” My new normal is grounded in calm and gratitude. I’ve realized that my life in the midst of this chaos was unrecognizable. I can’t go back to the old normal. 

Every night at 7pm when my neighborhood erupts in cheers, I run to my window to scream my head off. I’m yelling not only to pay homage to my fellow health care workers, but as if to tell my city: we cannot go back to the old normal.

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