My mother gave years of her life to service in this hospital. I was born in this hospital. I volunteered here for years before I started my residency in this hospital. I grew up before the very eyes of this hospital. I owe my life to this hospital, but I don’t owe my death to this hospital. And neither does my mother.
I start my shift with a feeling of dread. I wonder if my used and re-used, meant-for-single-use, N95 mask appears tattered to my patients. I perseverate on a virus so ubiquitous that I can almost feel it permeating my skin on every surface I touch. I try not to worry, but my mind is clouded with a sea of thoughts. I am afraid of speaking up for myself. I am afraid of coming in to work. And I want my mother to stay as far away as possible.
I think about how spoiled I have been under the protection of my resident union, under the wings of my senior residents, under the guidance of my attendings. And I realize that the same structured support will never be available to my mother. I think about how being young and healthy makes me low-risk. And I know the same is not true for my mother.
Months and years have passed since I started planting the seed in my mother’s mind that she should think about retirement. The time has come and gone. I have a fleeting thought about whether or not she would have volunteered to fight this virus on the frontlines if she had gone into retirement. I immediately know the answer is, ‘”yes.” Convincing her to extend her vacation to evade the worst wave of the global pandemic was difficult enough. Convincing her to not come back to work was impossible.
I put on a brave face for the first time I will see my mother in three weeks. I think about how heartless I feel, simply allowing her to walk into the warzone that our beloved hospital has become. I think about how helpless I am to change her stubborn mind. I wish I could take her place, but I’m right here alongside her.
I get into her car and avoid eye contact at all costs. I don’t dare to give her even a hint that I’ve been fighting back the tears. She is too staunchly stoic to understand my concerns. She thinks she is invincible.
We drive to the hotel I convinced her to stay in. I hope she will not sneak back home and risk exposing my father and my grandmother. They’re just innocent bystanders in our fight. Her N95 mask hangs under her chin, useless. I grasp for the right words to explain to her that it will be her only mask, indefinitely. I can tell she doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. She hasn’t been here for the worst of it.
I watch as she walks out into the rain with her N95 uncovered. I cringe seeing it saturate with raindrops. I can’t help but notice that she isn’t wearing her mask properly. I wonder if she is wearing the wrong size or if she has ever even been fit tested. I wonder if she knows what a fit test is. I wonder whether she will die in this hotel room or at the hospital.
She has always been my personal hero, but I don’t think the decision to come back to work, makes her a hero at all. Elderly and immunocompromised, it makes her a victim of a system that has continued to silence, oppress, and undermine its greatest champions.
The author is an anonymous physician.
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