I have written a lot about how COVID has changed me. Changed medicine. Changed America. I have written about it as a pivot point. A way to build a better medical infrastructure. I have alluded to how we can use innovation, advocacy, and listening to turn 2020 into an opportunity for change. How we can use it as a way to finally admit that health disparities exist, Black Lives Matter, and that, in fact, Black Births Matter. It’s now. Or it’s never. Because if we can’t see the way forward after consistently looking back until we ran into ourselves in 2020, then what exactly is it that we are waiting for?
But I have to admit that as we entered 2021 with more than 400,000 COVID deaths behind us, variant strains threatening to outpace our misexecuted and mismanaged vaccination roll-out, and an insurrection that caused this veteran to lose her faith in the country she once swore to support and defend, I was despondent.
I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel everyone kept referring to. I couldn’t see the hope they saw in the beauty of the inauguration. I couldn’t see past the next COVID death and grief-stricken family member. I couldn’t get past 2020. But I could not figure out why I couldn’t.
And then I realized it. I miss them.
My patients making recoveries.
Their families standing close, holding my hand, hugging me, touching my shoulder as I talk to them about their critically ill loved one.
My colleagues who I can see outside the confines of the hospital. With a drink or two to help soften the edges of our work.
My husband who raises our babies and works from home, alone in a house for 10 months.
My family. The family that raised me. The family that made me. Blood or not.
As a professional woman who most identifies as a physician more than any other title, I know that I run the risk of losing myself to this disease. I am not ignorant to the risk. I understand that my identity is supposed to be separate from my achievements and that my babies are supposed to make me value something greater than my career. But my oath runs through me in a way that I can only describe as visceral. And for this reason, the pain is that much worse. Because as much as I miss them. And as much as I miss me. I can’t not keep going. Because they deserve the best we have to offer. And those of us who have stood here on the front lines for over 10 months know more than anyone else, that if we don’t do it, then who will?
So I drag the lessons I learned in 2020 into 2021, and I balm the wounds of “missing” with the act of doing. The act of trying to heal. The act of caring. The act of looking in a family member’s eyes and telling them that I know the pain of this disease. The viciousness of it. The horror of it. I know that you will miss them. And I will miss them too because I could not save them yet again. But I will keep showing up. I will keep trying. I will keep loving them and loving you because by loving you, I can ease the pain of missing them.
Nicole M. King is an anesthesiologist.
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