Lulu was a force of nature. She didn’t believe in expiration dates. Her version of attending church was driving her pumped-up (to manage ranch terrain) golf cart out to the pasture to watch the sunset. She always had dogs underfoot who often ate better than humans. She often would write her birthday card messages on a piece of paper inside the card and then ask me for the card back, always economical and eco-friendly!
Her biggest disappointment was in herself for not finishing college. She was the ultimate cheerleader, praising me when I needed it even when it may have been just a bit biased. Put simply, I adored my grandmother. Moreover, I admired her. Lulu died four years ago, right before President Donald Trump got elected. Her illness course was quick, but the gap she left in the lives of those she touched persists. She was a person of substance, meaning, beauty, and grace. Her absence is felt. Now, months into the pandemic, I think of all the other “Lulus,” the loved ones who don’t get enough time to say goodbye, the empty chairs at the dining room and kitchen tables to which President-elect Joe Biden often refers.
As the virus took hold of life as we know it, I started medical school. Amid seemingly never-ending Zoom calls, my peers and I find so-called normalcy in the typical rite of first-year students’ passage: in-person anatomy lab. However, the meaning of learning from those who donated their lives to science is not lost on me at this juncture in history. In fact, last week, I arrived at lab to find a sheet of paper on the door with the genders, ages, and causes of death for the cadavers. Since August, we have been dissecting them, but we just now are finding out a small piece of their story, their very last chapter. As it happens, my cadaver died of the same condition as my grandmother, my larger-than-life, quirky, loving Lulu. I know my cadaver’s bones, muscles, tendons, vasculature, and organs. However, I have never heard her whistle, tell a story, or talk about what makes her happy. I don’t know her, and that seems to dampen the brutality of cutting into her body. I feel it less because I know less.
The same is true of the news. Not only are we desensitized to the sheer magnitude of the loss, but we are also learning from the lives lost, figuring out which drugs work best, how to allow families to reach loved ones in the hospital safely, and even moving toward a vaccine. As I see the cases increase day after day, my response is a stark contrast to my initial feelings at the pandemic’s start. I used to check case counts daily, comparing change over time, considering how my city compared to other similar cities, and more. Now, I have to remind myself to check even though I know it will upset me. I turn to news stories and opinion pieces to contextualize the information I glean, realize what its significance is, and keep my head up. However, the pandemic is not going anywhere. We have no way out of yet. Thus, I pose the question: How can we feel this without breaking? How can I honor my cadaver’s generosity without feeling overcome by the emotions associated with the sometimes mechanical and brutal work of learning what our skin holds?
The presidential election results represent an inflection point, a commitment to right our path toward one of empathy, compassion, integrity, and competence. I am hopeful, proud of, and inspired by the hard work of so many to get as many people to the polls as possible and promote an understanding of why representation matters and why participating in democracy is critical to the country’s health. I still cannot feel our reality without feeling its weight, but I will try not to break. I will pay attention to the lives lost because they are people who should be seen. We are living through history, and each person matters, be it my grandmother, the cadaver in lab, or the scrolling numbers on the TV banner of recent COVID-19 deaths. We are human and all in this together.
Hannah Todd is a medical student.
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