The attending physician knelt next to the stretcher to repeat his opening line. “Hello, sir. What brings you to the emergency department today?”
The man looked around in a daze, his lips quivering as if he was on the verge of crying. “The demons! The demons, they’re everywhere! Help me. Please, help me. I can’t stand it …”
As the medical scribe, I stood next to the doctor and typed the note. I witnessed the doctor stand up slowly and lay a hand on the patient’s trembling shoulder. “I’m going to call your wife so that we can get more information. Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you.”
Once out of the room, he called the patient’s wife. Per her report, the patient was the owner of a restaurant that had gone under because of the COVID pandemic, and he had been smoking marijuana daily for the past four months to cope. “He never smoked before COVID, but now he barely goes an hour without lighting up,” I heard her say. “Today was different though. He smoked, and then all of a sudden started acting paranoid and scaring the kids. I was worried his weed was laced with something, so I called EMS.”
The attending thanked the wife and assured her that he would take care of her husband. He hung up and he turned to me as we walked back to our clinical bay. “We’ve all had to go to extremes to self-soothe during this pandemic. Some of these measures may not be the best things for us, but they give us enough comfort to survive another day.” I nodded, not yet aware that I was about to embark on a similar path of unhealthy, albeit well-intentioned, self-soothing.
It was summer 2020, and the pandemic was starting to take a toll on me. Working as a medical scribe in a Boston hospital emergency department gave me front row seats to the pandemic’s tragic stories. I saw air hungry patients make final phone calls to relatives before they were intubated. I witnessed three-generation families present to the emergency room together, all with vicious coughs and unbreakable fevers. Every day was a new story, and usually not a cheery one. I would wake up every morning and convince myself that there was still hope left. It was during this time when I met Anne.
Anne was a firecracker of a girl. She was full of energy and color, and her sparkling charisma immediately entranced me. When I was with her, she was all I thought about. But the more time I spent with Anne, the more I realized how incompatible we were. She was self-deprecating, while I practiced positive self-talk. She was highly reactive in situations, whereas I was strategic with my stress responses. She liked to turn every occasion into a debate, while I loved telling stories. We were two very different people, with two very different ways of traversing through life, looking for the same thing: to no longer feel scared and isolated. Yet, her immaturity and argumentativeness were personality traits I was willing to live with to re-install my hope for the future. I ignored the signs and I eventually fell hard for her, which ended the way it should have. That is to say, it ended.
Looking back in the weeks after our break-up, I realized that falling in love was my form of self-soothing. The comfort of having someone next to me was almost enough to make the weight of the pandemic bearable. I ignored all the signs telling me she wasn’t the right person. It was just nice to know that I had a person. I had found a way to ease the pain I felt at work by getting caught up in a passionate romance. I couldn’t comfort myself, so I leaned on her to comfort me. And it worked for a while, until it didn’t. Ultimately, I ended up where I started- scared and isolated; except this time I was heartbroken and repeating the words of the patient I had seen months earlier: “Help me. Please, help me. I can’t stand it …”
Nowadays, I go on long walks through the city alone. I make dinner for one. When I go on bike rides, it’s a solo activity. I find comfort in myself, slowing down and making every small occasion a simple, peaceful one. I have a stronger sense of self, and through that, I have rekindled the fire that I felt during my first years of being in medicine. When I return home from the hospital, I don’t dive into the distraction of another person. Now, I write daily journal entries that help get my heart on a page, where I can set it aside and leave it be for some time before revisiting it. I put music on in my apartment, and dance and dance and dance. My new self-soothing methods aren’t perfect (none are), but at least they are now focused on nurturing and strengthening myself. No distractions, just facing my feelings head-on. It’s an art I am starting to get the hang of.
I encourage everyone, especially those individuals who are health care workers, to see how much our patients are suffering and, in turn, acknowledge how much we may be suffering. As the pandemic continues to unfold, we should try to be compassionate towards others and ourselves as we find ways to self-soothe. Some methods aren’t sustainable or healthy, but we must understand that we are all trying to do our best as we navigate a landscape that most of us have never traversed before. Maybe through this empathy and understanding, we can lighten the weight we each carry and give each other and ourselves a little more strength to bring us forward to the next day.
Fae Kayarian is a medical scribe.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com