Marin County, CA
This essay is part of our new 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.
I’ve always been a good sublimator. I’d run the misty hills at dawn to calm my mind. To legitimize the need, I entered races. For many years, in many ways, I used the short circuits in my brain to my advantage. Medicine is a perfect disguise. Conscientiousness, weatherproofing, thoroughness, fastidiousness, compulsion — all badges of honor. By outward appearances, I thrived.
Alone with my thoughts, I stumbled. Sleep deprivation, hormones, the stress of being a single mom — I started to believe my fears even when I knew they weren’t true. Everyday tasks can be insurmountable feats when you are compelled to consider everything and anything that could go wrong and protect against each and every possibility. Do that twenty-one times a day, with each patient, at every encounter. Do that at home with two sons, by yourself.
Doubt became debilitating. I started to crack but was too ashamed to ask for help. I worked distantly safe in the caverns of research and education. Anything but direct patient care.
I missed stories patients told me, insights I gleaned from their journeys, the satisfaction of solving a singular problem for a real person, and the feel of healing. I missed the sound of heartbeats and breath through my stethoscope and the smell of hospital-grade disinfectants. I missed connection and the small weight I can bear in tipping the scale from despair towards hope. But fear was my captor, and I was safe in its confinement.
Then came COVID-19.
I was given every excuse not to step up and do my part: young kids at home, ailing parents to care for, and adequate staffing at the moment. Self-doubt and anxiety had stolen enough of my time and energy. I was tired of being its pawn. I asked for a shift.
I wish I could write that this is where I conquered fear, but that is a Disney plot and I’m not Elsa the ice princess. I’m human, imperfect, flawed, doing my best, trying to be better. Fear is part of who I am as both a mom and a healer.
Fear is an unruly toddler and I invited him in. I waited out his fit of rage and listened to his tantrum. I gave him a hug, dried his tears, and brought him along for the ride, practicing donning and doffing my personal protective gear endlessly in my mind. I watched three different instructive videos on how to collect the COVID-19 nasopharyngeal swabs. I hadn’t figured out how I could self-quarantine from my sons if I got sick, but as I dropped them off at the emergency childcare for healthcare providers, I told them, Take care of each other. Wash your hands. I’ll be back, after work, to pick you up.
Patients had non-specific symptoms and I didn’t have answers — no one does. The playbook has not been written. My internal doubt and uncertainty was now matched to the external world.
When I was asked, “How good is the test?” I replied, “It’s getting better.”
“Is there a treatment?”
Despite the N95, face shield, gloves, and gown, I was unmasked, vulnerable. But years of living with anxiety had prepared me for this in its own way. There is no ending to uncertainty; there is only showing up as you are in that moment.
When a patient told me he was scared, I told him, “I am, too.”
Danielle Eigner is a family physician who has been taught narrative, point of view, and the complexity of the human condition from patients who have shared their vulnerability. She hopes that in sharing her own vulnerability, someone might read this and feel less alone.