How coronavirus took my grandfather’s life

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As a first-year internal medicine resident in NYC, the physical and emotional toll this has placed on me is unmeasurable. My attending physician reminds me of someone commanding a battlefield: my “allied” residents, doctors that chose different specialties but are now deployed to my floor, “coalition” doctors, students that graduated early to help us. Medicine has been replaced by wartime rhetoric. Unlike war, however, medicine is not a path by which any of us ever expected to lose our lives.

Being on the front line of a global pandemic at a tertiary care center in one of the most populated cities in the world is not only surreal. It’s scary. Not the type of scare you get from running out of groceries at the supermarket. I was scared of potential cases I was coming into contact with, scared that my mask wasn’t fitting properly on my face, scared that I would touch it with dirty gloves by mistake. My face hurts from wearing a mask 13 hours a day. My head hurts from trying to find a mask in the chaos of people frantically searching for it.

Walking into a shift one morning, I was handed a Yankee’s poncho to use as a gown. “Treat it like gold,” one hospital administrator said at a weekly COVID town-hall conference. I can’t come into work without fearing for my life.

At my own hospital, a nurse I worked with a few weeks ago is now in critical condition in our ICU. Still, hospitals are firing personnel for speaking out; nurses are on leave for bringing their own protective gear, and physicians are seeing their compensation cut. Heroic rhetoric means nothing when you are treated worse than a villain.

As the death toll continues to spike, I started taking a few seconds out of my day just to hold my patient’s hands as they near death. I close my eyes and stand in silence in the patient’s membrane because, in the chaos of it all, we become so desensitized. Tomorrow is never promised.

A few mornings later, I started having fever and chills. I was in stern denial. But this could no doubt be a surprise when you’re given nothing but a Yankee’s poncho and sent to war.

But worse, I could hear my grandfather who I live with coughing violently. What’s his O2 saturation? How’s his breathing? These are questions I asked about strangers a few weeks ago and now couldn’t stop thinking about for my grandfather, as I brought him to the ER.

One of the horrors of being in the hospital during this time is that no family members are able to be by your side. Medical workers are stretched so thin that there are not enough to look after everyone. The care for each patient inevitably becomes compromised.

Day after day, I saw my grandfather through FaceTime. Truthfully, I felt blessed to be able to see him at all. I got to see him, and he got to see me, even if it was through a 5-inch screen. It was our lifeline.

One of the calls you dread making as a doctor is telling a family member their loved one is dying. That was the call I received when my grandfather decompensated. We grow accustomed to making the call as clinicians, but we never expect to get it ourselves.

I felt for his pulse. Slow but faint. As a doctor, you become desensitized over time. You frantically think of the next steps that will save this body’s life, until you realize that body is someone you know.

Death here during this time has no dignity. I’ve experienced a lot in my career by trade. But this one feels particularly brutal. Patients are not allowed to have visitors and often die scared. Someone codes, someone dies, and on you go to save the next life.

A few days later, I prepared to head back to work. I thought about all the patients I treated for COVID, never thinking my grandfather would be one. As I headed into work at around 7 p.m., I hear the sounds of people cheering outside. At that moment, I was no hero. I had just lost a war. And back I went to the battlegrounds that altered my family forever.

Society needs to redirect energy to alleviating the struggles of workers rather than glorifying it. The government faltered, but it is community advocates and organizers of grass-root campaigns that create reproducible change. The fact of the matter is, nobody wants to be a hero right now. We just want to live to see another day.

Zaki Y. Azam is an internal medicine resident.

Image credit: Zaki Y. Azam

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