Flashes of pale yellow raced before my eyes as professionals donning their respective personal protective equipment moved quickly to triage those they vowed to serve amidst this growing pandemic known as COVID-19. Astutely following the disseminated algorithm, patients were quickly discharged or relocated to the depths of what has become known as the COVID unit. These brightly lit, sterile halls housed those requiring the support their body needed to defeat the infection. And yet, while its purpose was born out of good, namely to minimize exposure, its name has taken on a meaning of trepidation and repudiation. Those professionals who are called on to assume the care of one of these patients at times exhibit reluctance in taking the elevator to the seventh floor. I must admit that I, too, echoed similar sentiments.
As I assumed my Friday night call shift on labor and delivery, I was informed of a patient who would be directly admitted to our antepartum service in order to rule out a possible COVID-19 exposure. As practiced, I begrudgingly dressed in our protective attire and prepared to meet the patient. As I left the elevator door, I headed south to the patient’s room where I found both her and her husband. I greeted her warmly with a smile after which I took a careful history followed by a pertinent physical exam. After I completed my evaluation, I discussed with the patient how we would be proceeding. I concluded by opening the door for questions.
“Why am I here?” she interrogated suspiciously.
I simply reviewed the hospital policy with the patient, stressing the importance of safety during this time. Part of that policy included waiving the right for visitors. At this point, I noticed a change in the patient’s demeanor, as time seemed to stand still. After a few seconds of silence that felt like an eternity, the patient simply replied, “What about me?”
As I stumbled through my response, placating her with the presumption that we were invested in her own well-being, the question replayed in my mind. While we were working to effectively triage and subsequently treat these patients, it seemed that our interactions may be perceived as misguided. As I exited the room and doffed my PPE, I looked behind and watched as all elements of humanity devolved right before me in her room: the precautious social distancing, the expediency in which authorized personnel entered and left the room, the cold stares that met the patient’s concern of being in isolation, and the preoccupation with provider self-preservation that dominated the tone and nature of our discussions. Her dignity became a casualty in our efforts to conform to our hospital policy and to oblige by the recommendations rooted in science.
And yet science does not instruct us in how these actions affect the souls of these individuals. We become blinded by the idea that they too have families who are longing for their return. That these are people who delight in the joy of watching the sunrise, listening to their favorite tune, and the warm embrace of a loved one.
After the patient’s husband left, I visited her room three more times, not out of medical necessity, but out of a social responsibility to remind her that she mattered and to restore within her the hope that in this shared humanity, we would get through this. Without speaking a word, she smiled for the first time as I left her room so she could rest.
Calvin Everton Lambert Jr, MD is a maternal-fetal Medicine fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, NY.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions in the Frontline Voices initiative reflect experiences of individual ACOG members and do not represent official organizational opinions of ACOG.