COVID-19 is here. As the numbers of cases continue to grow, my fellow physicians have to evaluate how we will respond when the number of ills outnumbers our current capacity. Older physicians, younger pregnant physicians, physicians with young children at home, no matter their personal circumstances, the response is the same: “If we’re needed, we will be here.” There is no hesitation to do what we’re trained to do. For physicians, medicine is not a job. Medicine is a shared calling to care for others.
Historically, it has always been this way. We used to have fewer tools, but the same hearts. During the bubonic plague, towns would hire plague doctors who knowingly attended to the sick. At that point, they had little to offer in the way of treatment, and bloodletting was common. They couldn’t interact with the general public because of their professions, but they were committed to alleviating suffering anyway.
When I was a senior resident, a physician was shot by a patient’s family member in the hospital. The initial page that was sent out was brief, but the messaging was to lock ourselves in our offices. We quickly realized that the patients were in their unlocked rooms. How could we lock ourselves away and leave them open for harm and also not continue to take care of them? The hurried calm I saw in my colleagues that day is something I’ll always remember. If my fellow physicians were afraid, they didn’t show it. The dug into the work of taking care of others and our shared commitment.
Lately, it has sometimes felt like we’ve lost our shared profession. We’ve become so fractured in sub-specialties and so overwhelmed by the requirements of what we do. But, even when the system is breaking, my colleagues don’t put patients in the middle. They stay late to see the new consults. They chart from home to check on results.
The connections between physicians these last several weeks have exploded. Physicians all over the country and the world are banding together to share information. Doctors are sharing what they’re seeing in their local COVID-19 cases. Others are sharing possible treatment options. People are sharing how to work through how to protect staff from exposure and how to get testing done. The speed and ease of information sharing on a novel infection have been unprecedented in my lifetime, and it’s all been motivated by trying to learn from the experiences of fellow physicians to give everyone the best chance of success.
I’m a hospitalist, and I was trying to explain to my husband concerns about staffing when physicians start getting pulled out for isolation. He looked at me and said, “You’ll volunteer to work their shifts, won’t you.” I will. But I fully expect the rest of my physician colleagues to step up too. Because in times of crisis, physicians will always come together in our shared calling. We will always take care of you.
Clarissa Barnes is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com