During medical residency, one’s goal is two-fold: to provide compassionate and evidence-based care for patients and training and learning.
But when a global pandemic emerges, we rise to serve, upholding our oath to care for the sick and our duty to our profession. The privilege of this role during an unprecedented time in history means that I witness the toll this pandemic has taken on people from all walks of life. As for many around the world, this year’s journey has been one of extreme tragedy and the search for glimpses of hope.
At the start, COVID-19 was an unknown and abstract fear couched in the sense of individuality, as it had not hit so close to home for many people.
But it exponentially evolved.
It malignantly spread into people’s homes, becoming a very personal and often nightmarish reality. During the winter months, I was on service in an LA County hospital in what became, as some would call, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. It was an experience marked by difficult decisions, tough conversations, hands held before many intubations and rapid responses, voicemails of families we could not reach, and last words spoken to those families we could reach.
COVID-19 was no longer something that happened to a distant, individual stranger but instead now found itself infecting entire families, neighbors, friends, and community members. It weaved itself into the fabric of our community — fraying the very fibers of thread that often hold us together. The carnage of the pandemic and isolation caused an exhaustive weathering of our collective sense as a community.
Often, the debilitating effects of COVID-19 do not cause death but are arguably just as devastating.
In late 2020, I met Mr. B, an essential employee in his 40s with little past medical history who was fully independent. COVID-19 left him with not only a three-month ICU stay due to his lungs and kidneys failing but with a medical history marred by complication after complication. Some of those medical complications have or will resolve with time but beyond the medical complications are those that are less tangible but even more enduring. Mr. B not only lost his job, but his home was foreclosed, and his car was repossessed. Even more so, he lost his father to COVID-19 as well. He endured all this while also fighting for his life.
COVID-19’s treacherous path took an already broken and fragmented health care system and bent it in half, squeezing it till it was bursting at its seams. It had health care workers stretched in unprecedented ways, leaving them with memories and experiences that will take many years to unpack — this devastation allowed for a sense of hopelessness to etch itself into my soul.
Then, about two months ago, I had an opportunity to volunteer in Downey, California, at the Los Angeles County Office of Education COVID-19 vaccination site to help with vaccination efforts.
It was incredibly inspiring to see the Los Angeles County Fire Department lifeguards’ streamlined and organized operation together with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health team.
Their teamwork and pride in their concentrated efforts allowed hundreds of volunteers to come together to vaccinate over 2,100 individuals that day. Working alongside them reminded me of the strength of community. It also showed me how community serves as a separate protagonist in our everyday lives, creating a path to the light at the end of the tunnel.
As a volunteer, I was tasked with monitoring individuals in their cars post-immunization. I would joyously greet each car. The vehicles were filled with sons, daughters, parents, husbands, wives, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends. I would exclaim, “Who got the shot?!” to see the smile flash across their faces. This touched my heart. I found myself cheering with a fist pump in the air. Car after car, person after person. Why? Because that was one more person with some level of protection against this terrible virus. It was the dose of hope that I needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a magnifying glass. It’s amplifying the many fractures, cracks, and holes riddling the institutions and systems around us that have been there for many years.
Within the vaccine distribution plan, we have seen how it is inherently skewed for those who are tech-savvy, with means to vehicles and with the support systems to make sure their loved ones get a vaccine appointment.
It’s pressingly important to know how this virus further exacerbated long-standing health disparities, hitting LatinX and Black communities across Los Angeles County the hardest. These disproportionate impacts must remain at the forefront of our minds to continuously evolve and design systems that are committed to creating an equitable distribution of this vital vaccine in a just manner. As we work to repair these systems to be more just and equitable and to hold institutions accountable, we would be remiss not to step into the magnanimous power that stems from community when powered by a collective sense of purpose and collaboration.
From this perspective comes my rally cry to every individual who has felt isolated, tired, frustrated, or whose patience has simply run out with this pandemic.
Now is the time to call up your neighbor, co-worker, fellow community member to ask them if they need help signing up for the COVID-19 vaccine. It might be a matter of keeping an extra browser open at home and refreshing the website for appointment availability, offering a masked car ride to a vaccination site, or even going to the lengths of crowd-sourcing available appointments by specific locales. It may be organizing virtual or distanced spaces to foster dialogue to better understand vaccine hesitancy or to help answer questions based on reputable sources about the vaccine that have lingered on peoples’ minds. It might even be having upper elementary-, middle- or even high school-aged youth come together with their friends and help with online registration for older friends and family members on vaccine waitlists as a service project.
Every single one of us has a role to play in overcoming this pandemic and freeing ourselves from the grips of this deadly disease. But channeling energy in a collective actionable pattern is the true antidote to the feeling of hopelessness that has plagued so many of us during this tiring pandemic.
For that reason, and in honor of every patient I lost during this pandemic, I will raise my voice so that each of us can receive this dose of hope.
Shirin Poustchi is an internal medicine resident.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com