As I drove into work this week, I felt the elephant standing on my chest with its heavy foot in the pit of my stomach. Amidst this current global pandemic due to COVID-19, I reminded myself to breathe. The idea of getting closer to the hospital made the adrenaline surge through my anxiety-ridden heart.
I think back to a time many years ago, when I was a pediatric resident, preparing to take my board exams. I remember someone jokingly telling me, “When in doubt, the answer is reassurance.” At that time, I don’t think I really appreciated the weight of what that word meant…reassurance.
I know now that behind the levity of that comment, lay reality. As pediatricians, we are trained to reassure. This is what we do every day. We know what to say, and we know how to say it. When parents come to us with their worries, our priority is to calm their fears and allow them to sleep at night. Instead, we, the pediatricians, lie awake at night for you, contemplating our decisions and thinking about your children.
Today, for the first time in my career, I walked into my job as a pediatric hospitalist and was unsure of my ability to reassure. I tried to tell myself that it was going to be ok, but was it? Would I be able to provide reassurance to these children and their families today? How do I connect with a family but also keep the appropriate distance from them? My usual workdays are spent sitting at the bedside of my patients and letting their families see the honesty in my eyes. I wonder if they feel my compassion in the midst of this crisis from where I am standing. I wonder if they see my sincerity behind my mask and goggles. As my heart tells me to high-five with my patient and hug his mom, the mother in me fears that those caring actions might actually get me sick.
In a recent meeting with our group, my boss asked, “How do you all feel?”
I feel anxious. Anxious about the unknown.
I feel scared. Scared that I will be infected and bring this virus home to my family.
I feel frustrated. Frustrated that so many of my colleagues around the country are working tirelessly without the support they need.
I feel powerless. Powerless that we won’t be able to save all that need saving.
I feel torn. Torn between the oath I took to care for these children and the oath I took as a mother to protect my own.
As I walked through the halls of the hospital, I felt exhausted in my attempt to process all of these feelings. The constant barrage of emotions whirled around in my head; one thought overtaking the next. That elephant was still with me, and it was now crushing my chest. Although it felt like there was no end in sight, sometimes all it takes is one moment to slow your thoughts and control your emotions.
Today, that crucial interaction came from a spunky little 2-year-old girl. I walked into her room, donned with my goggles, mask, gown, and gloves. She calmly looked up at me, brightened the room with her smile, and waved. No fear. No anxiety. No frustration. I smiled back at her. It was at that moment that I allowed myself to breathe. My chest expanded, and I could feel the adrenaline wash away with that deep breath. I realized that I would indeed be able to reassure.
I can reassure you that I will listen to you.
I can reassure you that I will be here to take care of your child.
I can reassure you that I will be here to answer your questions.
I can reassure you that we will work together and do what is best for your child.
I can reassure you that despite the current events we are facing, I will be your child’s advocate and your voice when needed.
Even during a global pandemic, the human connection remains present.
I left this day at work thinking about this quote by C.C. Scott: “The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.” I can reassure you that this spirit will move us forward together.
Reina Patel is a pediatric hospitalist.
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