Like most modern marriages with spouses in the same profession, ours is one based on an exquisite balance of willful one-upmanship and reluctant admiration. A pandemic with two physicians in critical care medicine, albeit in different disciplines, serves as ample cause for a seismic shift in that equilibrium.
In January, while the balance was still intact, when he remarked that the Chinese authorities should suspend their traditional New Year celebration because of the new mystery virus, I waved a dismissive hand. In February, the news started trickling in from his friends in Italy. In March, he went to the board of his hospital and quietly started making arrangements for the type of PPE he would require when it reached us. April, May, June, and July, before we knew for certain the effectiveness of PPE, he moved out of our home to protect us, and I was a full-time pediatric intensivist single mother with two preschool children. The balance was forever shattered, with no reluctance clouding the admiration. August and September gave us some respite, and while we tried to live a normal life, his gaze constantly turned to the winter approaching. October arrived with the start of the second wave, and in November, we find ourselves once again in the midst of this raging inferno.
A quarter of a million dead in the U.S. alone with worse to come, despair, disbelief, anger, denial, rage, every small slip extracting a price too high to pay, hunger and homelessness, misdirected anger searching desperately for a doorstep to lay blame upon, truth twisted to a parody of misshapen, barely recognizable and yet such seemingly convincing fact, final goodbyes without touch and humanity, loss beyond anything we have experienced and yet labeled a hoax: the reasons for dark, hopeless despair are many.
And yet. Yet.
I look in awestruck wonder at the role that the internet has played in the medical community. From the whistleblower health care workers in China to the doctors in Lombardy who used social media to alert the world about what was coming so they may be spared some semblance of suffering. The remarkable consortiums that have sprung up to share incredible amounts of knowledge and data. I see the late-night meetings between physicians in Greece and Italy in India, as they share experiences with my husband and exchange expertise and solace. All the COVID physician groups on social media that allow us to ask for help, and find it, a hundred times over and in seconds. The enormous body of literature that has since sprung up and been shared so widely. This, this is human communication in its purest form, why the internet came into existence.
And then I see the enormous strength reflected in the way humans embrace their own fragility and yet audaciously stride into the arena. From the man nearest to me, who exhausted beyond words, finds himself staring into the distance, remembering yet another “unacceptable mortality,” and wakes up every morning, despair notwithstanding, to try again. To the endocrinologist who descended into the critical care field to ensure that her trainees were protected because she knew that there was no advocacy without her. The hepatology researcher could not bear to stand by, so walked down an unfamiliar path to find answers and found herself a sought-after expert on COVID in liver disease. The young intensivist who calls on experts from everywhere to save the life of a 36-year-old surrogate mother with completely fibrosed lungs. The scientists work every minute to find a solution, rework old ideas, and generate new ones in their relentless pursuit for answers. The unnamed, innumerable men and women who volunteered to be in vaccine trials for the sake of the human race. The stories are too numerous to count.
Of all of these though, the most important truth to emerge from this vast quagmire of human loss and suffering is simply this: that placing our faith in science is the only option we have as a race. Science challenges dogma and upends previously held beliefs in its quest for truth. Never has this played out so publicly, where we who know the uncertainty of medicine have had to explain to others what we have long known: that the pursuit of knowledge is excruciatingly uncomfortable and fraught with misstep. That these, the very foundations we rest on are the ones we shake harder than any other to ensure that they remain true. To balance our principle of primum non nocere with imperfect solutions while we wait for salvation, whether in the form of the fastest vaccine ever developed, or perhaps, in the near future, a complete cure, is our cross to bear every day. And yet, to believers and skeptics alike, science delivers the same truth. Medicine delivers the same care.
SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated irrevocably that the path of scientific progress is inexorable. And as long as the scientific pathway is in the hands of men and women of such impeccable personal integrity, the only direction of that progress is forward.
Shilpa Vellore Govardhan is a pediatric cardiologist.
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