When coronavirus exploded, my family was on vacation in Colorado. We played the news nonstop, and it was frightening. I’m a control freak, a planner, and thus my worries were nonstop. What were other hospitals doing to prepare as compared to my own? What were the plans to ration PPE? How was the morale at the place I’d been at almost daily for years?
I was angry, frustrated, and disappointed. Not in the existence of the then epidemic, but in myself. I was disappointed because the strongest emotion I felt was fear, when I should be level headed and ready to help. Furthermore, I was disappointed that I was accepting of the fear. I felt a strange calm at seeing who I truly was: a coward. I was absolutely certain that I was not the type of person who would sacrifice their life for others. Good for the other providers who felt otherwise, but not for me. I didn’t sign up to die. And so it was.
But then came the uneasiness. The guilt. I am the granddaughter of German-Jewish refugees and struggle with Jewish guilt like the rest of us. Many concentration camp survivors say that they lived by sheer luck only, but what about the non-Jews who risked their own lives to shelter us, clothes us, and feed us? Many of our people wouldn’t have lived without them, and there I was, the granddaughter of a woman who was sheltered by a non-Jewish family, and I was accepting of my cowardice, thereby allowing my fears to prevent me from helping others in the capacity that I am knowledgeable and skilled in. I had learned from my grandparents about the concept of tikkun olam: repairing the world. Daily, every person does what she can to improve the world around them. I was certain that I was betraying my past by being scared by not helping others in the capacity that was greatly needed. But I was who I was—a coward.
Life goes on, even for a coward, and I had an overpriced NYC rent to pay. We sanitized our seats and flew back home, and I went back to work the next day. Honestly? It wasn’t because I was driven to help. I was still scared. It was because my husband told me I couldn’t quit. I normally love my job, the challenge it presents. My role is to help the dying, help those with the lowest chance of survival face a dignified death. Most of the time, I speak with their families, and I am faced with the challenge of painting a picture that they cannot, and do not, want to see, and present a new reality that they do not want to face. Now, I wanted no part of it.
There is, indeed, an upside to my story. Day by day, my fear lessened. I got creative and crafty, working within the confines of new, controversial rules, and figuring out a way to see close to double the number of patients I normally do while minimizing my own risk as much as possible. Since we’re talking about guilt, this also made me full of it. Aside from the fact that I work in a hospital, I don’t consider myself “on the frontlines” in my particular role in palliative care, and that alone made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough.
A few weeks in, and I view it differently now. The role that my team plays in palliative care is vital to addressing the needs of this new, tragically ill population. I’ve also found more ways to help, by teaming up with both strangers and close family friends alike, to gather and distribute large donations of PPE to various departments at my own and different hospitals in need. I have rediscovered a sense of purpose, of helping others in a new way, and my Jewish guilt is quelled. Perhaps this is how my grandparents felt, helpless, scared, but moved to give back in any way they could. I truly feel as though I’ve been put in my role not just to help with the frightening amount of the dying, but also to help in a small way to keep my counterparts safe and alive.
I don’t feel as guilty anymore. I don’t feel like I am betraying my past. The coward inside of me still lives, but it’s smaller each day. I am comforted by the understanding that we each do what we can to help. Now, instead of anger, fear, and guilt, I feel nothing but pride.
Jordana Kozupsky is a palliative care nurse practitioner.
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