Doctor, am I going to make it?

Never have I ever had to rely on my communication skills as much as I have as a physician in the pandemic of 2020. My eyes, however, were not taught those skills. There are pillars in medicine, communication guidelines, and lessons in empathy — all things we learn in our training. I can’t say that I had a strong foundation in communication skills as a medical student, but I learned those skills with time. Nevertheless, there are moments in life when I sometimes forget. I sometimes forget that the person in front of me, my patient, is vulnerable, scared, and helpless.

In the midst of this pandemic, let’s not forget how we enter a room as physicians. Yellow gown, two masks, goggles, face shield, and gloves. Only our eyes making us human. As a patient lays in bed, all they see is a set of eyes glaring over them. My smile cannot comfort them, and my voice sounds muffled. As I speak to their family member on whatever video portal I can find, I see the worry in their eyes when they see their loved ones. I imagine the horror they must feel when only a set of eyes can be seen caring for their loved one. The human touch has been lost.

We are taught to legitimize and explore our patient’s concerns. I will never forget my 44-year-old firefighter who was on a non-rebreather in the ER. The last patient of the day for me. I was utterly exhausted. I went over his care plan; he understood, asked questions, and said he would update his wife.

“OK,” I thought, “this is one of my easier patients.”

As I turned to leave him, he grabbed my arm with a force that caught me off guard, pulling me towards him.

“I going to make it?” he asked. “I’ve seen the death tolls every day. I’ve responded to people dead in their homes.”

Would I legitimize and explore this? I can teach this skill and learn about it until I am blue in the face, but when you are in that uncertainty, looking at a patient who can only see your eyes … what learned skill would allow me to answer that?

“This virus is so unknown to us, I can tell you that. We cannot predict what will happen to any of our patients but what I can tell you is that you are here with me, and I will try my very best.” He thanked me profusely and told me he had kids. As my eyes filled with tears, I pretended to yawn and walked away.

We are taught to empathize, show a human connection, lean forward, and perhaps place a hand on a shoulder. What can I teach my eyes to do when that is all my patients can see? I can utter words to him, but the eyes are the gate to the soul, as they say. Never have I ever needed my eyes to communicate more than now.

Razia Jayman-Aristide is an internal medicine physician.

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