Internal Medicine Resident
Thomas Jefferson
University Hospital
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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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.

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I am in my last year of internal medicine training. Sometimes I work with coronavirus patients in the hospital and other times I sit on the couch in the residents’ lounge, bravely scrolling through emails from colleagues with links to giveaways for healthcare professionals at the center of the pandemic.

Something about browsing a website dedicated to compiling “perks and freebies for health professionals” embarrasses me. Is it guilt? That when I actually have time to scroll through these corporate handouts, I’m not really doing anything to help? I was on floor duty early in the pandemic, when occupancy was at an all-time low, the hospital bracing itself for the anticipated influx of coronavirus patients. After rounds, I walked around the corner to a coffee shop that still had its doors open and the barista, who had served more people in an hour than I had all day, thanked me for everything I was doing. Back in the lounge with my small drip, I sat back with my legs crossed leisurely. I pulled down my mask, took a sip, and informed my colleagues that “it’s tough on the frontlines.”

It’s a little silly that you can’t really be that busy in order to keep track of these perks. My coresident, the one who’s on vacation, found a new link to discounted eyeglasses and lets the rest of us know. Yet something about philanthrocapitalism itself makes me roll my eyes. A discounted North Face fleece, free delivery on a Sweetgreen salad, a one-for-one sneaker promotion for your favorite professional on the frontlines – it’s mostly silly that these are considered perks to begin with.

I think a cool perk for a resident physician would be work-life balance. Another might be sleeping in my own bed. Things have gotten much busier lately – I’ve rotated into the ICU. My hospital threw us an impromptu ice cream social to thank us for our quiet professionalism during the pandemic. Obviously I would prefer a better salary. Even so, I’m not going to say no to the cookie dough. Looking at all of the giveaway-green Allbirds underneath white coats, I wonder if my co-residents are similarly comforted by these paltry articulations of gratitude during these strange times. The claps on city balconies, the sign in the hospital cafeteria that lets everyone know that “Heroes Work Here,” the ways that multibillion-dollar companies default to consumerism to thank essential employees — it’s all sort of touching, even if absurd.

In medical school, I was impressed by the ways that tangential details could color a therapeutic encounter completely. A Spanish speaking woman with dementia whom I saw as a student had mannerisms that reminded me of my grandmother. Instead of shaking my hand at the end of her appointment, she winked at me and drew me in by my wrist to kiss my cheek. What was peripheral to the visit became central in my mind.

The infiltration of the frontline by franchises feels extraneous to everything that actually matters to me as a clinician. And yet I take credit in whatever currency it’s offered. Thank you for the coffee.

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Amisha Ahuja is a resident physician who lives and works in Philadelphia.