The absolute fear and loneliness of COVID-19 patients in the ICU


I am sure this comes as a surprise to no one, but taking care of hospitalized COVID-19 patients outside of the intensive care unit (ICU) is really emotionally draining. The absolute fear and loneliness in their voices pierce into you. They keep asking for reassurance, and I’m providing some, but not enough of what they want or need to hear. Yes, you’re on oxygen, but not very much, and overall your vitals are stable. Do I think you’ll worsen? Will you be like those cases on TV that you keep hearing about? Truthfully, I’m not sure.

The news reporters, your only “companions” at the bedside day and night, are bringing nothing but bad news and terror of your own impending doom. You ask, “Is that really going to happen to me?” You can’t see my face when I’m talking to you on the phone … safe in my office and floors away from you. I’m grateful for that. It’s hard to hide the sadness and fear and non-reassuring glances I keep making around my empty room. I can only imagine the look on your face in your equally empty room.

And when I see you face to face, I’m covered in masks and plastic shields and gowns. You don’t get to see my attempted smiles, but I hope my eyes aren’t deceiving the feigned optimism in my voice. You don’t need to know that my patient across the hall is currently transferring to the ICU, but then you hear the alarms going off and ask what’s going on. Are you next? I can only say, I hope and pray you’re not. There’s a chance you may get worse, but there’s also a chance that this will be the worst of it, and you’ll slowly get better.

“But what about all of my other health problems? Aren’t I at greater risk? Can’t you do something more? More antibiotics or other medications? Why is this happening? Why me? I’m so scared! I’m so alone!”

I keep backing away slowly toward the door as they keep talking. I’ve been in the room for too long. I have more of their neighbors to see. More of the same questions to answer and fear to hide and factitious smiles to remain hidden. One thing I can reassure my patient of: I will be back tomorrow. I promise. Wait for my call in the morning.

Keowa Bonilla is a hospitalist.

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