I can’t breathe: an anesthesiologist’s perspective


I can’t breathe. These words cut to the core of all humans, and shock anesthesiologists. We are trained to continuously listen to and think about breathing. We coach our patients: Take a deep breath! Yes! And another one! We watch our patients’ chests rise and fall, like waves on an endless sea. We listen to bellows and the winds of breath through tubes and masks. We attune our ears to the synesthetic rhythms of the color of blood translated to the tones of the pulse oximeter.

We churn into high response mode if we fear our patient is not breathing well enough. We problem-solve, team lead, and intervene if oxygen, which powers human life and thought, is not feeding the present and future of our patients. We analyze, communicate, attune, and replace lifesaving tubes if carbon dioxide is not escorted out, releasing the acids and pressures of our cells and vessels. It is a matter of life and death.

So, when a black man, whose neck is being crushed by a white police officer, pinned to the street by officers and over four hundred years of oppression, violence, and wrongful deaths, when that black man says, I can’t breathe, we as humans, as people who have experienced love and care, feel brutalized by the absence of love, and by the horror of hate, vindictiveness, and indifference.

I don’t understand all the repercussions of violence and fear on the daily lives and futures of black people. It is more than economic. It is more than health statistics. It is more than death counts. It is more, even, than the many stunted what-ifs constraining generous imaginations. The past and present impact the future.

We must allow George Floyd and the many, many other black people who have died due to police brutality to be our power. I can’t breathe is our call as humans, as inhabitants of this small planet choked by our own destructive ways, to come together and do something.

We are all anesthesiologists now.

Audrey Shafer is an anesthesiologist.

Image credit: Robert Townsend


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