Medical Student
Columbia University Irving Medical Center
New York, NY

- - -

This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

- - -

The pandemic assumes a different face depending on where you stand. Last week, I read an article about a British couple traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a boat. With no connection to the outside world, they sailed across pristine blue for weeks, unaware that the world had changed. By the time they docked, hundreds of thousands had fallen ill. And the same dreary day in late March that they disembarked on a Caribbean Island, thousands more died.

In Cornish, New Hampshire, life is quiet. As of today, I have spent 45 days in self-isolation. That’s 45 days spent indoors, 163 miles ran, two virtual game nights, the same three people hugged, and perhaps ten too many Zoom meetings. I’m afraid that if I stop tracking life, these months will blur together, forever gone, and all I’ll have left from this spring will be a profound sense of loss. So I retrospectively record my calls in a calendar and capture small moments in a journal. Yesterday’s included the aroma of fresh bread and simmering chili, the gentle warmth of a dog fidgeting in my lap, and the sight of my brother experimenting with quarantine hairstyles. At night, I listen to the 7 p.m. cheers in New York City through the phone of a friend. There’s only quiet here.

We continue our medical education from scattered screens across the country, watching pre-recorded lectures, and attending virtual office hours. Firsthand accounts from the hospital flow freely, as our curiosities coax our instructors to carry the conversation to places their minds already hover. I start writing down the anecdotes I hear from New York-Presbyterian.

March 16th: Shortages of PPE. Canceling electives. Contingency planning and masks and gowns for all patients admitted to the Emergency Department.

March 31st: Reducing pressure on the Emergency Department with a cough and cold clinic in a tent outside of the hospital. Re-wearing masks. We get into a discussion about the ethics of sacrifice. Should a physician be willing to “go down with the ship?” What is the line between a profession and a job?

April 6th: Safety nets falling apart. Primary care physicians redeployed—no longer able to do basic management for the patients they used to see on a regular basis. Trying to manage elderly patients remotely. Just found one dead at home.

For a long time, the small hospital where my parents work had only one patient test positive for the virus. “This sweet little old lady has practically shut everything down,” my mother joked one evening, a reference to the weeks the hospital had spent preparing. In the early days, everyone was scared. We read news articles and anticipated the inevitable surge. Community members stopped showing up to their physical therapy appointments, and my parents’ roles were quickly reassigned. They started screening visitors in the emergency department, calling patients, and setting up cots. “It feels like we keep preparing for a storm that hasn’t come,” my mom says over dinner. She still showers and changes her clothes when she returns from the hospital, but the underlying panic is gone. She’ll pause and have a conversation with me through the hallway, no longer rushing to scrub off a possible infection. The hospital is up to five coronavirus patients now.

Stuck with headphones plugged into one locale and sneakers planted in the next, I don’t know how to blend these narratives. If New York City is a battleground, and a boat in the Atlantic is ignorant bliss, I’m not sure what Cornish is. Stagnancy? Anticipation? All I know is that it’s 7 p.m., and it’s quiet.

- - -

Emma Healy is a first-year medical student at Columbia University who is interested in narrative medicine and community health.