I was woken up by a phone call directly from my clerkship rotation director. I had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. Self-isolation starting now.
Suddenly, the distance between health and sickness was only one phone call away. One moment, I was a medical student caring for the sick; the next moment, I am the sick. The shift in identity is drastic and confusing.
The battle for control has been lost everywhere. The news everyday shows how our daily lives have been torn apart. People cannot go outside. Patients must be admitted to the hospital. People wear masks. Patients are on droplet precaution. Just like my identify, the concept of healthy versus sick has been blurred for the public as well.
Unexpectedly, the world seems to be a darker place. Without limit, without logic, without law. The virus runs blind and rampant. There is an accepted amount of tragedy in life. People pass away every day from old age, from illnesses, from car accidents. We would offer condolences, then go on with our lives. We have been resting comfortably in the armchair of confirmation bias and just-world fallacy. COVID-19 crushed the armchair. Now we sit amid the ruins, wondering why us.
My new identity is the shunned “other”. Fear of disease and a love for scapegoating have make people turning against each other. Too bad, those self-defense mechanisms are out of my reach. As a potential SARS-CoV-2 incubator, I embody the “other”. I tell my family to stay two meters away from me. I begin to eat alone in my room. Personal space, comfort zone, all these words let us associate physical distance with affection. As social animals, we find support in compact groups; however, exactly the opposite happens in a pandemic. I must consciously remind myself that the relationships are unchanged.
Not only have I lost the control over my normal life and identity, I am uncertain about what would happen next. The theme of uncertainty is very familiar to me throughout medical school; however, the locus is always external. I am uncertain how well my patient would improve. I am uncertain if I could return to clerkship next week. But now, I do not know what will happen to my body, my foundation in life. It is hard to imagine maintaining other sources of controls without a lifespan.
As a young, healthy person, my situation is insignificant. My prognosis is good. Yet I took this opportunity to reflect on the patients I met during clerkship, how have they dealt with their indeterminate fate? The uncertainty in the medical arena is an unavoidable burden, yet I have always been observing it from the health professional’s side, the safe side. Now, I have waded through the river to the patient’s side. I am one of them. I no longer empathize; I feel.
I feel their strength. When I watched an ICU physician telling a white-haired man that his wife has dismal survival chances, he looked stricken, but collected. They immediately plunged into a deep discussion about next steps.
I feel their compassion. A doctor was drawing on paper to explain to a middle-aged woman that most of her lymph nodes were cancerous, she pulled me closer so that I could see my preceptor’s diagram.
I feel their dignity. I took care of a frail lady of ninety-nine years on dialysis for end stage renal disease. She told me that her biggest concern was her diarrhea. She declared that if she was to pass away soon, she needed to control her bowel movement beforehand.
The uncertainties, the loss of control, the stigma, those are the daily realities of the patients we take care of. This may be a dark and uncertain period we are living through, but it allowed me a glimpse of the difficulties faced by our patients. Although every patient experience is different and I can never claim that I walked in my patients’ shoes, this pandemic opened my eyes to the hardships of being a patient. I will carry this lesson forward in my training and aim to become a better physician. I am humbled.