Strange. Unprecedented. Tumultuous. These words, among others, have become familiar descriptors of the times in which we are living.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on life as we know it, and with that has come an overwhelming collective negativity. Although the damage that COVID-19 has done cannot be minimized, it makes it all the more important to find the positive stories amidst the uncertainty. Hopefully these stories of compassion, self-sacrifice, and humanity will be able to offer some encouragement in this strange, unprecedented, and tumultuous time.
Putting Compassion Before Personal Comfort
Part of being a great physician is putting compassion before personal comfort. Because the current pandemic impacted specific cities significantly more than others, providers from across the country offered their time and services where they were needed most. One emergency department physician, Brad Butler, MD, FACEP, saw a decrease in patients at his local hospital, which allowed him to travel to the city facing the harshest impact of COVID-19. When asked about his experience treating patients during the pandemic he replied,
I have been gone… for the past 3 weeks, deployed with the Navy to the Javits Center in NYC. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with over 2,000 of my fellow service members (Navy, Army, Air Force, National Guard, and Public Health Service) here in NYC, taking some of the burden off the local EDs and hospitals. I have personally met over a hundred COVID patients, who were universally pleasant and thankful for our service and care of them.
It is encouraging to see that so many physicians are willing to offer assistance during times of crisis, even if it means travelling over two thousand miles and treating a convention center full of COVID-19 patients. At the core of healthcare is compassion, and that quality is being highlighted now more than ever.
Setting a Good Example
Role models and mentors are an invaluable part of good health care. Every physician, resident, and student can name the individuals who contributed the most to their journey in medicine. Amidst the current pandemic, many providers have reached out to their mentors for inspiration, advice, and a sense of comradery. When asked about positivity among COVID-19, Katherine Dahl, MD, pointed toward her mentor as an example of resilience and forward-thinking:
The other day, a friend of mind said, “COVID really shows people’s true colors.” It’s true. This crisis seems to reveal and augment deep personal qualities both negative and positive. I have a story of a man whose beautiful soul is revealed by this crisis. He is my mentor from training in New York City. His hospital was running out of CRRT machines and he was told that he would need to come up with a plan to decide which patients would be denied dialysis. He refused to deny dialysis to anyone, and insisted that he would find a way to dialyze everyone who needed it. He contacted a large dialysis company and got them to lend home dialysis machines that could be used for continuous dialysis in the ICU. The company also sent nurses who could run these dialysis machines, and could teach the ICU nurses how to run them. When they were running out of dialysate, he came up with a formula to make their own dialysis solution from scratch. He also came up with an idea to use a blood pump to make new dialysis machines in case the home dialysis machines were not enough. When everything seems impossible and dark, everyone feels some element of despair. Some people get overwhelmed and give up, while others stay creative and think outside the box. My mentor will never give up.
Having mentors who are resilient and innovative will continue to pave the way for new physicians, and this pandemic will allow those mentors to shine. If every student and resident can find inspiration during this time of adversity, we will surely be set up for success in our own medical practices.
Knowing When Kindness Supersedes Risk
Adversity has the incredible effect of revealing the enormous propensity that humans have for kindness. There seems to be no limit to the ways people will support each other. From home-made masks to video wellness chats, the COVID-19 pandemic has become the intersection of innovation and compassion. Sometimes the most meaningful impact can be made through the simple gesture of human contact. This deed means acknowledging the risk of contact during the pandemic but doing it anyway. Even in knowing the risks of COVID-19, one physician, Leslie Koenig, MD, was able to prioritize humanity and compassion.
"I gave a patient a hug last night. Two, actually. I had just told her she had a giant abdominal mass (looked like a solid tumor) and she started sobbing. Broke my heart so I held her hand at first. Came back later to update her and she broke down again. She had zero COVID symptoms and we were both wearing masks. She was terrified. So I just hugged her. She needed it and maybe I needed it too. This sucks and I know it's only going to get worse. But, hugs are magical. Hug who you can."
There are a million reasons not to hug a patient given the current COVID precautions. To choose to abstain from touch is a reasonable choice, and should not be faulted. But physicians like Dr. Koenig will continue to take the calculated risk of offering physical consolation to a patient. This action provides a reminder that humanity must not be lost during this time of social distancing and utmost precaution.
COVID-19 has caused adversity among health care providers, patients, and so many others. It is easy to focus on negativity when it seems that the world has been thrown into chaos. But even amidst that chaos, stories of compassion, resilience, and selflessness have been brought to the forefront of healthcare. We are seeing inspiration in the ways that healthcare providers are engaging with their patients, their students, and their peers. Physicians are finding new ways to heal, even when it seems impossible, and theirs are the stories that will endure, long after COVID-19 has become a thing of the past.