How the words, “I can’t breathe,” affect this pulmonary physician

As I held the shaky, sweaty hand of my 52-year-old African American patient, lying in her ICU bed, trembling with fear, tears rolling down her eyes, she gathered enough strength to utter “I can’t breathe.”

Her words felt like a punch in my gut, eliciting a visceral reaction, with flashes of George Floyd’s body pinned to the ground, running through my mind. The events of the last few weeks had given a whole new cultural connotation to the words “I can’t breathe.” I stood by her bedside, dressed in full PPE, my face shield hiding the tears welling in my eyes.

As a pulmonary critical care physician, taking care of patients struggling to breathe, with coronavirus ravaging through their lungs, ”I can’t breathe” had become a term all too familiar in the last three months of ICU service. Working in a busy, urban hospital, primarily serving the African American community has given me an opportunity to witness the daily struggles of a community grappling with a myriad of social injustices, ranging from gun violence to poor healthcare. The last two weeks have wreaked havoc in my beautiful city of Philadelphia, which became my adopted home after immigrating from another country. The anger and emotions of the African American community have boiled over, and the city of brotherly love is on fire.

As these thoughts raced through my mind, her next words were even more devastating: “It’s June 2 and rent is due. Please don’t let my 15-year-old daughter get evicted; she’s all alone.”

I watched her oxygen saturation drop to the 80s on 100% FiO2, as she gasped to breathe, from a disease worsened by her social anxieties and responsibilities.

Taking her hand into mine, looking straight into her eyes, I promised to do everything to “help her breathe.”

In communities ravaged by COVID 19 and racial tensions, let’s make a pledge, as their physicians, to stand with our African American citizens and do everything possible to “let them breathe.”

Silence is no longer an option. In solidarity, we stand together, denouncing the system injustices and bias towards our brothers of color.

I promise to do all I can to “let you breathe.”

Bhavna Sharma is a pulmonary and critical care physician.

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