I’ve faced this disease since it arrived. I flew into the storm in order to face it head-on, leaving behind my family and a hospital filled with denial and petulant resistance to the horror that was to come. While in New York, I worked alongside men and women who were working at the edge of their capabilities in a heroic and inspiring way. I watched what can happen when a group of people is united in battle.
For me, this was my deployment. The one I never completed as a Naval anesthesiologist. Always marginally embarrassed that my time as an attending was spent having my two children instead of boots on the ground. Never once treated differently or admonished for choosing to have children in my mid-30s while my husband deployed simultaneously, but I as a person who held my oath of office as tightly as my oath as a physician, always felt like I didn’t finish the job. So I quit my job and “deployed.” Those short weeks changed my life. They changed me. They changed the trajectory of my career and they gave me back what I had left behind in the Navy.
This is why 20 months later, as my husband and I watch the horror of Afghanistan while I am simultaneously continuing to fight this war at home, I am despondent and honestly angry. I know the fear and anxiety of sending your loved one overseas. While I was deployed on the U.S.S. Boxer in 2011, my husband was outside the wire every day on a forward operating base 15 miles from the border of Pakistan. This is how we spent the first year of our marriage. And since then, we have continued to perform similar party tricks as others around us wonder how our marriage has lasted this long. Surprising no one more than ourselves, it had seemed relatively easy until the past 20 months.
As an intensivist who quit my job and found another during a pandemic, I have been forced to work away from my family part-time. This means when I am home, I am at the beck and call of my two young children. Their mother is gone half of the time, and they need me to be “on” every time I’m home. I explain it to my husband like this. I go back and forth from deployment to “home” over and over again, and at each different location, I am expected to be 100 percent engaged and perfectly poised, and willing to accept whatever is thrown at me at all times. Simultaneously I am inundated with misinformation, pseudoscience, and the battle cry of those who insist that the very freedoms my family has personally sacrificed for are being denied in the name of public health. Forgetting that men and women like my husband and I actually did give up many of these freedoms in order for them to be able to act in such a selfish and entitled manner.
I am constantly overwhelmed by the hypocrisy in which I find myself as it relates to both this virus and the current geopolitical climate. I feel attacked from all sides by so many who simply do not have an understanding of what it means to serve, as both a physician and a military officer. I mourn the loss of those killed in action recently, but also watch the pain on my husband’s face as he remembers the lives lost in 2011 which garnered next to no media coverage or associated civilian outrage. In fact, while on vacation for his R and R time in early 2012, we had a couple ask why he was even in Afghanistan if that was “over,” not understanding they were confusing two separate conflicts.
In a similar vein, those of us in medicine have been begging for people to see this virus and this pandemic for what it is from the beginning and have been largely ignored or shoved to the side so that we as Americans can get back to “normal.” Now that it is front-page news and firmly in the face of all of us as it threatens to destroy the very fiber on which the U.S. medical infrastructure is built upon, there is outrage and disbelief that this is really happening. Further crushing the souls of those of us who have seen this for what it was from the beginning. A war and all of its associated casualties.
Nicole M. King is an anesthesiologist.
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