Some things in a physician’s life are perpetual. Nowadays, COVID-19 has become one of these inescapable crises that doctors must deal with.
At this point, everyone – including medical practitioners – is exhausted to the core. It feels as though we haven’t slept for weeks or that we’re repeatedly being hit by a train. Every movement feels as if we’re running a marathon.
Even so, my career as a medical professional gives me an adrenaline rush. Like a designer who enjoys designing and a cook who seeks pleasure in experimenting with ingredients, I also look forward to seeing my patients heal.
A few weeks ago, while working at the ICU, I realized that I owe much more to my patients. Apart from just treating patients, I should also make an effort to talk to them. Offer them what they need during isolation – a book, a glass of water, a coloring book, a video chat with a loved one, or a newspaper.
It is extremely lonely inside the isolation ward. A patient may look or feel fine, but their lungs are severely compromised, and it takes time for them to fully recover. Not everyone reaches this point of recovery. Some patients have to be placed on a ventilator. The fate of each patient lies in the hands of a higher power.
I decided to use comforting words as medicine in addition to the standard practices. Within a week, three of my patients were discharged from the hospital. One began reading Sidney Sheldon as his oxygen requirements took some time to reach stable levels. Others sought peace in religion and coloring. All I could give them was hope for improvement and make them believe that recovery was possible.
This involves acknowledging that all emotions – including love, empathy, devotion – are ultimately chemical reactions in the brain and can be manipulated, enhanced, and extinguished. Electrodes planted in the right areas in the brain can make a person feel anger, fear, hunger, or lust. Chemicals ingested into the body in the form of antidepressants can have the same effect.
The entire field of psychopharmacology is based on this fact. There is plenty of evidence that words can induce the same chemical changes in the brain through slightly different mechanisms. Words can make us feel happy or sad, angry or relieved, hopeful or hopeless. The right choice of words, at the right time, can lift a person out of despair and save their life. A poorly chosen word or a deliberately harsh one can scar a person for life.
If you are a physician who deals with COVID-19 patients, try spending time with the patient and offer them words of comfort in addition to standard treatments.
Depression among COVID-19 patients is a real threat. In these situations, the thought of death is closer than it seems. Sometimes the fear and anxiety add more to tachypnea and make it harder for patients to breathe.
In a country like Pakistan, everyone understands the value of concrete interventions: silicone implants, stents in the heart, metallic knees, and liposuction. Few place the same value on words, and fewer still understand their importance in curing and harming us.
Natasha Khalid is a physician in Pakistan.
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