An emergency physician’s spiritual toolkit to battle COVID-19

These are unprecedented times.  As a mid-career ER physician and mom of four kids, COVID-19 has changed everything.  Schools are closed, all public events canceled, and the United States has declared a national emergency.  There is a heightened sense of urgency at work.  Scenarios that seemed absurd 24 hours ago are now a frightening reality.  Things are going to get worse.  Are you ready?

We are bringing physicians back from retirement and asking medical staff to cancel all non-essential travel. “All hands on deck” seems to be the battle cry of even the most conservative medical leaders.  Many of us will soon get sick and as I wait, my 13-year-old daughter is in France, unlikely to get home.  Where is this going from here?

I have always had a rather taboo approach to my profession.  Colleagues are aware of the difference in me, and patients are sometimes exposed to my unique worldview.  It has defined how I see my work, and it will be the bedrock of my response to this medical, societal, and humanitarian crisis.  Every day, in all kinds of ways, I bring God to work.

Early in my career, on an average Tuesday, I was yelled at by an angry patient.  It rattled me.  The nurses saw it coming, as I exited the room, refusing to write an opioid prescription for non-malignant pain for a patient with a reputation for demands and abuse.

“You’re useless!  You call yourself a doctor?”

Harsh, but it happened, and when it did, the 5-hour wait in the minor area of our department didn’t go away.  I felt the staring eyes of weary patients, lined up in the chairs.  My posture immediately stiffened. I tried to move on, and it took a few minutes to remember where to go.  Inside myself, actually, deep into the soul part of me that believes I have a deep sense of worth and value even when bullies try to shout me down.  I have a defender, in the Christian faith, He/She is a parent-figure that stands up strong between me and the psychological forces that try to harm me. “She’s amazing, doing an awesome job as a doc today! She’s strong and has got this.” As much as this is the well-known verbiage of a million self-help books, when those words are spoken into my mind, supernaturally by Someone who I believe created me and loves me – it works.  This has been my experience.

When I “show up religious” at work, I am constantly checking myself.  Is someone offended, judged, or marginalized by my belief system?  If so, I am doing it wrong.  Perhaps you are skeptical of this approach to medicine, and that’s OK.  We are evidence-based scientists, and the minute we stop asking questions, we are doing “doctoring” wrong.  We all need to ask good questions.  Medicine has gaps.  Several ends often remain loose, and I may be wrong, but I have found that filling the gap with faith has built a reliable resiliency in me.  Empowered by a Christian worldview,  I am equipped to deal with any task, even when I don’t feel equipped. It’s a life-perspective that emboldens me, this other-worldly experience of coming to work not alone.

Here is what following Jesus at work, as an ER physician in a global pandemic, empowers me with:

1. A sense of calling and divine purpose. I became a doctor after years of praying about what I was going to do with my life.  I believe that I was called by Someone, for something bigger than me, and I am to show up for my shifts, see patients responsibly and compassionately and work towards a greater good for all of us.

2. A command to treat others the way I want to be treated. If this wasn’t so clearly prescribed by Jesus, I wouldn’t do it naturally.  Naturally, I would run to Costco, buy up all the toilet paper, fill my pantry and grab a lot of extra ‘essential’ things, but I will be reminded daily to share and not hoard, and this will be better for the world.

3. A community of like-minded individuals that are for me. My husband and I meet each week with other couples that intentionally check in with one another.  I am able to be honest about my fears with intelligent and caring people who ask if I am sleeping OK, taking breaks, and also brainstorm how to keep the kids busy while all the schools are closed.

4. Apparently, I will have the ability “not to worry.” Isn’t that crazy?  As Christians, we take the teachings of Jesus seriously, and no matter what you think about Jesus, historically his words were recorded as reliably as any ancient scholar we reference today.  Jesus said, “Don’t worry.” about anything, ever.  And he said that to people who were living in violent, scarce times and he meant that if anyone sets an intention to surrender your anxious thoughts to God, you will experience a calm that is unexplainable.  Interesting, eh?  Even if you don’t believe this is true, wouldn’t you want to try?  You could show up at your over-crowded hospital, don your personal protective equipment, enter the negative pressure room, look right into the throat of an infected, coughing, septic patient, and NOT worry.  All I know is I do not have the ability to do that by myself, and so I take God to work.

5. Hope. In recent days, I have felt my mind struggling for perspective.  I want to come up above the fray of worry and fear and see into the distance, beyond this virus and the disruption and pending devastation it threatens to bring.  I want a sign that points toward goodness, relief, normalcy.  When I shift my gaze from the ER hallway, I search for the source of that perspective, and it shows up as hope.  We all need hope.  When hope is lost, we evaluate for risk of harm to self and others; we deliver bad news; we pronounce people. It’s exhausting to self-generate hope, and so I am grateful to have found a source.  Jesus is the spiritual source of my hope upon which I have built my faith.  This particular journey is not everyone’s story, and I have deep respect and a curiosity for any spiritual story of another kind.  What is the source of your hope?  Hope will be vital in the weeks to come.

We need each other more than ever.  Consider your calling to medicine, whether it includes a source of hope.  Look closely there; you may find what you need.

Rose Zacharias is an emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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