My phone chimed. I received an email stating that rotations were canceled, so I had effectively graduated medical school while sitting in the parking lot of my local grocery store. It felt like a natural end to an isolating day. That morning, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The streetlights shone against the budding trees and reflected an orange luminosity that refracted against the dewdrops condensed from the previous night’s rain. I tucked my nose deeper into my coat, the air still sharply biting at my cheeks, and ran to the car with the reward of heated seats.
My car groaned to a start, as if it was telling me good morning. The streets and highways were empty, and my car droned silently on through the cold, dark, and wet morning. The badge reader at the gate to the parking garage produced its all-too-familiar sound, and I parked in my usual spot. The garage was eerily silent, with the only sign of human presence being the echoes of my falling footsteps and the metallic rattling of car keys. I walked quickly through the entrance and quickly glanced at the waiting room to glean an idea for what the day would be like. My eyes scanned the room in less than a second, and I knew the day would move quickly. I hesitated, asking myself if this would be the day I would finally get sick.
Life in the emergency department had become different from my past encounters. We had seen an increasing number of patients come through with respiratory problems, and policies changed daily. We all heard the rumors and stories about our friends and colleagues getting sick. We were a collective conscience of workers, silently aware of the kinds of risks to which we were exposing ourselves. It was almost easy to forget that patients could come in with different ailments because of the prevalence of patients with flu-like symptoms, and we felt an uneasy sense of relief when someone came through with the traditional musculoskeletal injury or abdominal pain. The pastel blue scrubs worn by friends and colleagues reminded me of the pink of the cherry blossoms blooming, but they had faded dark due to sweat and overuse.
A patient codes. We attempted resuscitation measures for close to an hour. A woman with a confirmed pulmonary embolism. Her eyes stared inertly toward the sky, as if finally accepting her destiny to whatever higher power dictates this world. Blood began to rhythmically pulse and accumulate through the endotracheal tube with each beat of my hands against her chest and broken ribs. Our protective gear protected more than just our physical bodies from contaminated fluid, and the awkward, silent stares from the health staff were claustrophobic, tempting me to recede into a computer far from prying eyes. Every flicker of an electrical impulse gave us more hope that she would last through this trial, but she passed away – an unsuccessful coup against her mortality. The care teams walked away with mixed emotions in their eyes from sullenness, sadness, and exhaustion but nevertheless reluctantly ready to care for the next patient who came through the door. Somewhere down the hall, a person coughs repeatedly as if their soul is desperately trying to escape pain and sorrow, gasping for some ounce of oxygen before the next cycle of rhythmic breathlessness begins. The familiar noises from IV pumps become more obvious.
Another woman comes through crying, her face mixed with the moisture of tears and rain. She indicates that she had a miscarriage. The note from triage indicated that she had gone through something similar before, and the expression on her face confirmed it. I thought this would be another saddening case for this woman and her husband, a case that would only bring heartache to someone desperately trying to bring a new life into the world. We ran the typical tests, and the woman waited anxiously in her room for the news. The results were unexpected. A confirmatory ultrasound indicated that she was not only pregnant, but also that the baby was quite healthy! In the fever of this pandemic, when thoughts of critical illness and mortality persuade the public to seek irrational measures of survival, sanity is still maintained in many. Suddenly, thoughts of life emerged and flourished. This was a bit of happy news in an ocean of despair and maddening times.
Back in the parking lot, my phone buzzed to indifferently announce my medical school graduation. Without fanfare, this chapter was now closed, a paradoxically anti-climactic end to an unending four years during an extraordinary crisis. My car groaned to life once more. I entered the highway in a state that can only be described as somewhat delirious, as the roads seemed the same as they were during the morning drive.
Gregory Stimac is a medical student.
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