The effects of physical distancing will be long-lasting

As a radiologist, it should come as no surprise that I am not a “touchy” person. Not only do I remember the first MeToo movement that coincided with the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, but I just assume that people don’t want to be touched unless they initiate it. A resident told me that my face turned pale two months ago when a medical student I was quizzing in preparation for a board exam hugged me after getting a question correct. I have been practicing my own form of physical distancing for years.

Even outside of the workplace, I am prone to awkward side-hug moments when I meet my friends I haven’t seen in a while because I am not sure how to approach these sorts of interactions. The spring and summer are usually when I travel to meet my old friends scattered around the country, but I will have to forgo that this year.

For others, the need for physical distance comes with much more dire ramifications. I recently learned of an unfortunate situation with a former co-resident of mine, Dr. H. Stricken with an aggressive malignancy and practicing in a rural community, she cannot travel out of state where she was scheduled for her therapy trial.

When I met Dr. H. many years ago, I realized that she was not a typical resident. She attended medical school at a later age than most and had already achieved financial success as a landowner in a rural community. She entered medical training with the intent of taking advantage of her resources by starting her own rural clinic afterward, and she went on to execute her strategy successfully. The clinic not only fulfilled her own dream, but it turned out to be a Godsend for the patients as well. Her level of sacrifice and altruism is probably unmatched by any physician I have met or will ever meet. It’s such a shame that bad things happen to good people.

Her story is a reminder that the healthcare show must go on for many people. Patients who are in life-or-death situations still need healthcare even though they are at greater risk for the complications associated with the coronavirus. The providers and staff who take care of such individuals bear the psychological risk of possibly passing an infection on to these patients. In the middle of writing this, I just found out that another friend of mine has a mother with breast cancer, and yet another friend is taking care of infected patients despite being on an immune-suppressing drug. There are also many older doctors or doctors with health conditions who live in rural areas who may be the only providers in these places despite their own predispositions to complicated coronavirus infections. These people need our support.

Because much of our non-emergent and outpatient services have been largely shut down, people who have injuries and minor afflictions are being shunted toward the emergency department causing increased risk to them. This pandemic is complicated on so many levels.

I have come to prefer the term “physical distance” to “social distance.” We need to continue to be social with each other. We just need to find more creative ways to do so. I wonder if we will ever view physical contact in the same way again after this is over.

It also now seems obvious that the hospitality industry has played a massive role in facilitating the mental and social health of the public at large. To my friends in the service industry, you are sorely missed. We can help them by purchasing gift cards and being generous with tips.

My best means of expression is to write columns like these in the hope that they can provide some sort of perspective and/or support for others. For my friends who I can’t meet this year, I’ll take a rain check on that side-hug. You will have to forgive me if I thought it was supposed to be a regular hug. I miss you all.

Cory Michael is a radiologist.

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