Family medicine physician,
University of New Mexico
and Native Health Initiative,
This essay 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.
Line of signs. Bagpipes. Cursing.
I approach the hospital, a real live doctor in a virtual world here to provide real live healing.
Like all of us, I vacillate between “There is still normal” and “Nothing is normal.” Arriving at the hospital, stethoscope gently embracing my neck, I try to convince myself of the former.
These three reminders shove me toward the latter.
Line of signs. Bagpipes. Cursing.
The line of signs makes me gasp, all along entrance into the hospital. Some printed and professional. But the ones that induce tear ducts into action are the handmade ones:
FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND HELPING ME WHEN I AM SICK, THANK YOU.
WHETHER IT IS A HEADACHE, FEVER OR THE FLU, NO ILLNESS STANDS A CHANCE AGAINST A DOCTOR LIKE YOU!
THANK YOU FOR SAVING LIVES DURING THESE HARD TIMES. #YOUAREAWESOME.
I walk over to have a moment with the row of signs. Gratitude for this display of kindness we are seeing in the last months. Not just for health care workers. But gratitude for all who keep on putting themselves at risk to keep food on our table, all who keep our cities and towns safe and functional. Gratitude toward the parents-turned-school teachers and for the teachers and barbers and shopkeepers and neighbors, everyone who brings joy and meaning to our lives.
The signs a signal of the wave of kindness this collective moment has inspired.
As I stand with the signs, I am not sure I am hearing right. Being a family physician, I immediately think of the most likely diagnosis: auditory hallucination. But the music continues. Approaching the hospital entrance, the bagpipe player comes into view.
Living in New Mexico, these Scottish instruments do not often grace our presence. Definitely not in hospital entranceways. I listen to the slow, mournful wailing.
The bagpipes speak very clearly to me as I watch a group of healthcare workers take in the melody. It is a moment to heal together, people needing strength to go back inside and care for those weakened by disease. Yes, we did have a few hospitalized with COVID, but the bigger population needing us are the non-COVID patients who lay socially isolated in scary hospital rooms, stripped of family members at bedside due to the pandemic.
The bagpipes a signal of the collective suffering to be acknowledged and the ways we find meaning in coming together to mourn, grieve, cry, and wail.
But I wasn’t in the building yet. A loud argument reaches my ears. Two cars, drivers shouting at top of lungs to each other. Seemingly, one had stripped the varnish off the other’s humanity by some move on the highway. (We call this “New Mexico Drivers’ Syndrome”). Do they not realize all of us can hear them? Do they not see the signs or hear the bagpipes in front of them?
I guess in a way this is a nice complement to the other two. A showing of raw emotion, escalated by the pandemic pressure cooker in which we all find ourselves huddled.
Let it out. Curse it out. “This cursing could even be healthy healing in a virtual world without outlets for stress relief,” the Socrates in me ponders.
Now, I am really stuck.
I have yet to even step foot in the building to hear what has changed since a week earlier. I have not even gotten to the part where I learn how my social etiquette for today includes things I never thought to do (or not do) just days prior.
I can’t even get there because I am stuck on signs of kindness, pipes of mourning, and stress-induced cursing. All three the raw emotions of the moment. Nothing needing to be processed or diagnosed. But simply gulped down along with the fresh New Mexico air of the day as something true to the moment.
Gathering myself, I step toward the front door, one thing cleared up for the moment — battle between “There is still normal” and “Nothing is normal” is quite clear.
Anthony is a family physician, a father, a runner, and a writer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He considers himself a love activist, dedicated to the idea that love is a strategy for social change and addressing injustices. You can read his weekly Writing to Heal pieces during the COVID pandemic at his blog.