New Haven, CT
Yale-New Haven Health
This is the second installment 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.
On the screen, I click through his life. I review his multiple aggressive treatments and lengthy course of rallying against an unrelenting disease. He and his family had made a decision recently. They would pursue peace.
He would die at home with comfort, surrounded by the faces of those who love him.
No one had anticipated this virus, though, and one by one these faces developed sore throats and coughs and fevers. They could no longer provide this comfort while also caring for themselves. He could no longer remain in his home.
He was rolled into the ED, the emergency department, and placed in a room.
He had no sore throat. No coughs. No fevers.
His wife was rolled into a separate room.
She had a sore throat. She had a cough. She had a fever.
The oxygen in her blood was too low. Usually we can fix that. However, this virus blenders up our tools and toys. It likes to mock us.
We’re accustomed to the elderly needing to borrow our machines and we are even familiar with the intermittent tragedy when the young get involved. However, this virus brings us people of all ages. We’re not accustomed to this.
What was once a tragedy is now a Monday.
I can’t touch my face. My mask gets in the way. And I can’t risk rubbing some bit of some virus into my eye.
So I squeeze my right eye shut, followed by a tip of the head to greet my shoulder. I repeat this for the left.
I have become a bobble. When my head steadies again, I stare at his wife.
The test we’ve done is positive. She needed more oxygen and a safe place for this to be administered, which means the Intensive Care Unit. A place where the rooms are spacious and the nurses always within ten feet. A place where the beeps and boops and chirps and blurts of machines echo over intermittent human voices. She needed tubes placed throughout her body and blood pulled and maybe put back.
He needed peace. No pokes. No pain. No machines. We have a place like that in the hospital too, but it’s both too medically and functionally far apart from the Intensive Care Unit.
We slide their stretchers together into the same room within the ED because we can. In different times this would not be allowed. But in this moment, we see wrong and the right.
I punch numbers into the phone and speak with one of the couple’s loved ones. I describe to them how they are together. They are holding hands. I promise to care for them both.
We will provide him comfort. We will provide her everything.
We ask the ICU to do the absurd.
Please accept them both. Please put them in the same room.
Please give everything to one and give comfort to the other.
We know this is a precious room with precious resources.
I expect swift dissent; however, we receive no immediate answer.
I swivel and spy one of the ICU doctors far across the emergency department, staring.
Hours pass and we receive a call.
It will take time but the absurd can be done.
They will remain side by side. He, who expected to die at home, and his wife, who expected to be home with him, seeing him through the end of this life. Now they are together in the ICU with no certainty of who will leave this world first.
It’s time for me to go home now. I watch them from behind glass. He reaches over and takes her hand. I see his lips move.
I love you.
I leave the hospital and enter my car. I wipe down the surfaces and apply burning chemicals to the cracking skin covering my hands.
I drive home and enter through the basement, strip down and place everything in the washer.
I nimbly climb the dark stairs and enter the shower.
The hot water hits my face and I begin scrubbing.
Ryan is an Emergency Medicine Resident Physician in New Haven, CT. He’s insistent that New Haven’s pizza really is the best pizza and enjoys going for walks with Stefanie and their dog, Benny.