I am a physician, and I am scared

I am a physician, and I am scared. I am scared for my patients, my friends, my family, and most of all, I am scared for my colleagues. As an oncologist, I am not someone yet on the frontlines treating patients acutely diagnosed with COVID-19, although when the call for all hands-on deck comes, I will answer. Such is the nature of our profession. But no one told us in medical school that answering the call to take care of patients would require risking our own lives due to lack of protective gear.

In medical school, when deciding on the specialties, we would eventually choose to enter, thoughts of global pandemics, and putting our own lives at risk was not taken into consideration. Medical school does not prepare you for the possibility of needing to make decisions that put ourselves intentionally in harm’s way. The foundation of our profession is professionalism, putting the patient first, at any cost. With the current pandemic and severe lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) across the nation, many physicians and health care workers are being forced to make decisions many times a day that put themselves directly in the way of danger in order to treat others.

Our conversations around our colleagues in health care feel reminiscent of wartime talk of sending our loved ones into battle. Patients and members of the community approach those wearing scrubs and thank them for their service. A colleague put it best when she said to me, “I’ve accepted that I will most likely lose some people I love.” My friends and colleagues across the country are putting on scrubs every day and walking into a battlefield without the protection they need to safely execute their jobs. Every day, with every patient they care for, due to a lack of PPE, they do not know if they will be infected with a virus that they may not even know they carry with them, as many who are infected do not display significant symptoms. They come home to their families and strip their clothes, scrub themselves in the shower, and sometimes self-quarantine themselves to decrease the chance of potentially transmitting the virus to their partner, children, or other family members.

In the dual physician family Facebook group I run, physicians share stories of tough decisions of deciding whether to put their elderly parents at risk by asking them to come take care of their children while they are off saving people’s lives, only to potentially jeopardize their parents’ and children’s health when they return from work contagious. Physicians are FaceTiming their children and spouses from the garage or a spare bedroom after imposing self-quarantines during this pandemic to try and keep those they love safe. Many are updating wills and discussing advanced directives in order to plan for the worst, as we did in our home.  My physician husband has moved out of our condo for the foreseeable future in order to protect our three young children and me as the procedures he performs as a gastroenterologist put him at a higher risk of potentially contracting the disease.

We all entered into health care with the purpose of helping people. When a patient is having trouble breathing, physicians and nurses run into the room to stabilize the patient without regard for their own safety, and without access to PPE, each time they do so, they do at their own risk.  And now health care workers are dying.  When I discuss this with my colleagues,  I use the airplane analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others, but I know that is asking too much from those of us trained to put others first. When someone is in distress, we run towards them instead of away. So I simply ask that you take as many precautions as you can, and do what you can to protect yourselves. Please stay safe out there, everyone. Please look out for yourselves, and each other, and thank you to all of you who are working so hard and putting yourselves in harm’s way every day

Sending all of you strength, good health, and mental fortitude during this extraordinary time.

Shikha Jain is a hematology-oncology physician who blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Shikha Jain.  She can be reached on Twitter @ShikhaJainMD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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