Pediatric Cardiac ICU physician
Phoenix Children’s Hospital
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.
Perhaps as with all of life and every fork in the road, if we knew what was to happen, it would be easier to bear. T.S. Eliot once said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” The waiting for that reality to manifest itself must surely then be the most untenable of burdens.
Will he succumb? Will I? Who will we take with us if we do? What is permitted and what is not? How dare we risk the children, and what do we dare with our parents?
In the beginning, it was all we ever spoke about. He moved out to protect us, as he threw himself into the war efforts to battle this enemy. I watched him, knowing that in his deepest soul, this was the purpose he had created in himself. He was to be the perfect doctor, who would give everything to the cause, facing an enemy worth battling after the endless years of toil. I know he was afraid. Not for himself, never for himself. For his mother. For me. Above all, for the girls. And he did what a responsible son and father would do. He left the house, visiting us through glass panels, and separated by the mandatory six feet, masked and gloved and always watchful. The thought of simply not fighting would never have occurred to him. He would have sacrificed my work, but never his own. That has always been how it was. Now, his battle is more important than mine, given the sheer number of patients he could help. So as always, I take the back seat and wait and watch. This time, I am not resentful.
Like all doctors faced with an unknown enemy, we discussed and read all we could and reached out to colleagues and shared our knowledge. On the nights that we could share dinner, he was seated outside with six feet of space and probably a million miles between us. It was all we could do: talk about it, as if in the speaking someone might be saved. We did not speak of death, except briefly. We made our wills, to ensure our girls, the only things in the world worth fighting and losing and fighting again for, would be safe. We spoke briefly of secrets to share, should one survive the other. And then we moved back to science and medicine and government and socialism and unfairness and ethics and integrity.
And still, it dragged on. Relentless, unforgiving, casting the illusion of reprieve and then snatching it away to return with a far greater devastation, realizing our worst nightmares. And one day, unconsciously, almost as one, we stopped speaking of this omnipresent hydra. We spoke instead as if the pandemic did not exist, as if we were a normal physician couple, in different intensive care units, performing different tasks, having a regular family dinner. For so long now, eating together has been a long distance affair, with glass panes in between, that there is a normalcy about it. We speak of the girls and the wonder that is their existence, their frustrating antics and their resilience.
Rarely, he tells me of the particularly heartbreaking stories, the ones he fought for and could not save. It’s a theme not unknown to either of us, but this frequency, this intensity — we had never thought to see it in our lifetime, with modern medicine on our side. Human hubris was always going to be what destroys us in the end.
We never have been creatures of many words, my husband and me. Oh, not in terms of medicine or politics or opinions: we can speak for hours about any and all of those topics. But for our deepest emotions, we relied on silence, and that comforting South Indian reticence that comes with habit and reliability.
In my mind, I wonder what my world will look like at the other side of all this. What losses would I have to bear, and who would I bid farewell to? What patients will I lose and what parents will I have to comfort without holding their hands? Who will comfort me? Will I lose him? My mother? My father, who I have just started to know? My grandmother whose stories I have not yet collected? Surely there will be loss.
As I obsessively follow him around the house and yard, frantically wiping down every surface he touches, it still feels unreal to me. Meanwhile, the circle around us grows ever closer. More people I know personally contract the virus. Some succumb, some recover. I continue to campaign for protection, for masks, for sanity, and for prudence. The science, the statistics, the politics, the ocean of uncertainty, and the ever-growing body of knowledge about this virus: I devour it all, and I argue and speak and rage about them all. And still I wander in a cocoon of uncertainty, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Outside, under the clear moonless sky, my husband checks his phone for messages and then turns to leave. I wave and watch as he walks away. He stops and looks back at me, and in that moment, our old reticent understanding springs up again, and with the ease of long habit of unspoken communication, we nod at each other, then, uncharacteristically, he blows me a kiss, and he leaves.
I am left. Waiting.