“Benadryl barely helped me sleep last night,” I groan to my partner. My eyes bloodshot, my head pounding as I recount the number of days I have needed to take a sleep aid this week. He hands me my lunch bag and locks the door to walk with me to work. The sound of my apartment door feels like a weight on my chest as it closes behind me. The world has taken on a different tone; perhaps I have started to see a gray tinged sense of desolation and despair around me.
Stopping at the grocery store for snacks, I cringe when they say, “You are on the frontlines. You can skip the line.” Politely I refuse as my glimpse catches the gaze of a man wearing a plastic Coke bottle on his face as a shield. Fear in his eyes as he peers at my scrubs. I break his gaze and head-on; the weight of fear and uncertainty setting a tone of despair in the eyes of people around me.
Heading out the door, I stop to read a sign that says, “Donate to support the local hospital,” and I am filled with rage. The first-hand account of tragedy I was witnessing at my job mixed with a sense of disgust that anyone could ask a community in such dire need to give the pennies left in their pocket to keep their families alive enraged me. Watching people sacrifice food for their children, without employment, some undocumented – I can’t find solace in knowing we have asked this Bronx community to chose between feeding their children or giving money to a hospital to save someone they love with COVID-19.
A woman in her 60s walks past me with a pack of toilet paper in visible distress- one leg amputated: clothes ill-fitting and worn; a cell phone in a Ziploc bag affixed to her ear. I turn to offer a hand, but she flinches as she stares at my scrubs. Afraid of me — afraid of this elusive virus — she refuses my help.
I continue down Bainbridge Ave inching closer to the hospital. A sense of duality fights inside of me, fear for this community, and fear for my own health.
Choking on air, choking on an amalgamation of sentiments I have been unable to fully name.
In my head, a dialogue rages: “Who will protect me? I have so many comorbidities! I’m not ready to die if I get sick! Do I have enough refills on my medications?”
There are no tears. Tears are reserved for deaths at this point. There are no feelings of empathy for myself: Just emptiness. My empathy has become reserved for my patients; so many of us on the front lines walking around cold and lifeless. The voice in my head getting louder the closer I get to the hospital until a deafening silence comes over me, and I shift gears.
“Did I have a heart attack?” I wonder as my heart rate slows to almost nil. It appears I had not; I had just found a way to hide the fear and keep going. There’s a line to get into the hospital, something I have become accustomed to as they check the ID and temperature of everyone coming into the hospital.
As a physician in the Bronx on the frontlines treating COVID-19, I do not have the luxury of fear. For the sake of my patients, I wave to my partner, enter the hospital, have my temperature taken, and start my shift, hoping the day will come when I no longer fear to go to work.
Crystal Romero is a resident physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com