I miss going to work feeling excited, inspired, determined, frustrated, and exhausted. Being a doctor has been my magnetic north since I was ten, the longest relationship of my life. It’s who I am, what I’m called, how I spend my waking hours, what makes my family most proud of me, and my first love.
Now I go to work terrified. I cannot sleep the night before I am on call. I worry that I won’t see my children again, or worse, I will leave them motherless. I miss the things that made work a joy and made me who I am.
Electric blue eyeliner: My teenage daughter said it was the coolest thing about me.
Earrings: I matched them with my mood or my clothes—dangling black crystals with my alligator print clogs or sterling teardrops with my blue scrubs.
Theme parties in the break room: dips and dippers, paninis (Nutella/banana was my favorite), and pasta parties. We celebrated each other’s milestones: a resident’s last night shift, engagements, and retirements. Carbohydrates expressed our love.
Hugs – I hugged each pregnant woman after she pushed beyond her limits, past her pain and fear, when she found her deepest strength. The hug said, “I know what you achieved; I know how hard it was. Everyone else’s eyes are on the baby, but I still see you.”
When I made it home on Saturday mornings, there were so many stories I could not share, but I could always share a puzzle-piece hug snapped together between my kids.
Since the pandemic, I do not use my blue eyeliner to avoid touching my eyes. I leave my jewelry, watch, and fitness tracker idling at home so they don’t pick up a deadly hitchhiker. I cannot share food from home with my family from work. I cannot share hugs.
I miss the unspoiled joy of the best day of a woman’s life and the privilege of being in the circle of the people she loves. Now I must tell her to choose just one person to be by her side.
And worse still, if she has the virus, I must tell her to keep six feet away from her new baby. The tiny person she created has to stay out of arms’ reach to be out of harm’s way. I will break her heart and a piece of mine. I didn’t invent this virus, but I am asked to enforce its harshest rules.
I sit in my car in the hospital parking garage, searching for the strength to go inside. We have limited science to guide us and no experience with this grim intruder. Delivering babies cannot be done at a distance. We will do what we can, but it may not be enough to keep our patients and ourselves safe. I want to go back home and hunker down with my kids.
I remind myself of a different moment in my history. In 1984, at age twenty-one, I moved to Haiti. Everyone said, “Aren’t you afraid of AIDS?”
I wasn’t. The ways to avoid AIDS were simple. I was afraid, however, of motor vehicle accidents. I remember sitting in a colorful bus, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with market women, as we careened around the curves of a mountain road. I remember the acrid smoke stinging my eyes as it filled the bus when the brakes did not brake.
I played the hubris card then because I was young. I told God this was not how I was supposed to die. I am not young anymore.
So, I sit in my car. The thought that finally pushes me through the hospital’s automatic glass doors is this: my team is in there.
We try to stay six feet apart at the nurses’ station, but the computers are too few and too close. Piled on top of each other, signing out patients, huddled together in surgery, we have always lived our work lives like a litter of Labrador puppies. Habits break hard.
We are the people who face screaming women, plummeting heartbeats, and splashing body fluids. We take scalpels to skin and flip twins inside their mothers. We are the people who rush in, not the people who stop to don gear that takes precious time from those who need us. We will adapt, but it won’t be easy.
This job could take me away from the people I love. Fourteen days if I am lucky. Forever if I am not.
For the first time, my job has betrayed me. It feels dangerous and abusive. I miss the good days, but even without them, I will keep coming back because I made an oath to my patients. For better or worse. In sickness and in health.
Kim M. Puterbaugh is an obstetrician-gynecologist.
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