Khadija Bhimji is a Palliative Medicine consultant at the Queensway-Carleton hospital and the Ottawa Hospital.

Picture of Khadija BhimjiHe is too weak to talk. All his energy is spent just trying to breathe.  I watch in silence, watch as his chest heaves with each breath and his body spasms with every cough. In the cold, sterile environment of a negative pressure isolation room, my only contact with him is through gloves, gown, mask, and visor. The hospital is on lockdown due to COVID-19, so visitors are not permitted. He has had no connection with the outside world other than health care personnel.

Through bluish lips he asks “Am I going to die?”

“Yes” I whisper. “But the medicine I’ve given you should help you feel better soon.” I pat his hand and prepare to leave, to move on to the next patient.

“Will you stay with me?” he asks.

In the frantic environment of an acute care hospital, with increased workloads, administrative responsibilities and academic obligations, I realize I have become a “symptomatologist”. In focusing on symptom management, I have forgotten the adage, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Distressed, dying, and all alone. Except for some stranger he has never met, and cannot see – or feel, because I am hidden behind the mask and visor.

“I will stay with you until you feel better,” I say. Can he hear me over the rush of the oxygen? I hold his hand with my gloves on. He cannot even feel the warmth and comfort of human touch except through this barrier.

I am reminded of why the word care is in my title of palliative care physician. Despite the burden, distress, and “politics” of medicine, I have the unique privilege to be his doctor, to share our common humanity, to be a companion on his journey. He is teaching me once again what it means to be a palliative care physician.