Resident Physician
UCLA Department of Family Medicine
Los Angeles, CA

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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.

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I’ve started wearing my dog tags to work.

Not because this is a war, or because my colleagues and I are “in the trenches” or “on the frontline,” or because it will be easier for them to identify me if I pass out in my PPE — though all of those are true.

I wear my dog tags because they remind me of my role. This problem is bigger than me. This solution, when it comes, will be much bigger than me. I’m a small cog in a colossal machine — the same way I was when I deployed. Even the biggest machines are only as effective as their smallest parts.

My dog tags remind me to pace myself. In the military, we would often say: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. These days, things inside the hospital change quickly. It’s easy to look at the numbers and listen to the lungs and convince yourself that a corner has been turned, only to find a few hours later that the only thing turning is your stomach as another patient is wheeled off to the ICU. The same way we were patient and methodical and steadfast back then, that’s exactly how we have to be now.

More than any other reason, though, I wear my dog tags so I remember to persist. It’s a familiar feeling, standing in protective equipment, sweat dripping down my back, the embossed stainless steel of those dog tags stuck to my clammy chest. The sweat is different, that suffocating feeling that comes with working long hours in PPE not even in the same ballpark as burlap cammies in 125 degree heat. But that feeling of being trapped is the same.

Even on the worst days, my dog tags remind me that this will end. I was wearing them when I boarded the plane that took me away from the desert. I was wearing them when we landed in Germany and I saw grass and trees and beer for the first time in seven months. You can be damn sure I’ll be wearing them the day we discharge our final COVID patient and start putting things back together.

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Andrew MacQuarrie is a writer, a veteran, and a resident physician. A native of Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles. He has been published in The Montreal Review, The Write Launch, Pennsylvania English, and On the Premises. Follow him on Twitter.