Pregnant resident doctor
who is participating in virtual care
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
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.
A man is screaming. He’s pulled out his breathing tube. You want to calm him, to assess his breathing, but you can’t even see him.
You are at home. Watching ICU rounds through the unblinking eye of an iPad.
On max volume, your headphones pick up all the sounds. Heart monitors beep and screech. Ventilators purr and hum. Twenty different clinicians having twenty different conversations. It’s an orchestral din. An unusual agony.
Until you realize you’re still here, at the dining table strewn with cookbooks and yesterday’s crumbs. Cool quartz under your elbows. A shard of shy Boston sunlight sneaking in behind you. Here, in your home without COVID, lucky to be safe. And, sheltering inside you, a baby who has just learned to kick.
You go where your colleagues take you, a camera wheeled along on an IV pole. You are a disembodied voice. A shared screen. A virtual assistant.
Your view of your colleagues is Picasso-like. Here, a triangle of nose and left eye. There, a blue gown and three fingers of fist clutching a stethoscope’s diaphragm. It fills you with pride to see them. It scares you to know them to be vulnerable.
The patient on your screen cries again. The team assembles: an intern gowns up, steps in to offer relief. In the shuffle, your view through the looking glass is momentarily lost. You breathe in. The hospital is in your ears but not your nostrils—where’s the sharp disinfectant, the sweat, the sterile air? A sudden pang of longing for the humid Indian summers of your childhood, soaked in cha and the warm smells of cumin, dust, fresh marigolds. You remember snatches of a melody your grandmother used to hum. What lullabies will you sing when your baby stirs? The intubated patient’s trembling has been soothed to stillness. His squirming, his will to live, not unlike what you feel beneath your stretched skin.
Everything smells like cheese. Your back hurts, but you’ve also been sitting still for hours.
These feelings you’re having of terror, and guilt, and ache for the safety of others. Pregnancy or pandemic?
You take notes in a small column; the tasks pile up like steps on a staircase to somewhere impossible. Check blood gas. Follow up liver ultrasound. Broaden antibiotics. Update family. You’ve never felt so helpless when you know there’s so much to do. How to provide care without your own hands in the room? How to give shape to comfort when the screen is flat?
One day, during rounds, you make pancakes. Whole wheat flour dribbled into liquid butter and tired eggs. Blueberries explode. The griddle hisses to greet the batter. Three perfect coins, submerged in syrup. Outside, a family of squirrels has taken shelter in your neighbor’s rain gutter. The Prudential Center is shrouded in fog. You listen to a presentation about kidney failure between bites. You hear about a man withdrawing from alcohol; he is shaky and hallucinating. And a young woman whose lungs are failing her, and each day the team fiddles with the delicate settings for pumping air into them. You wonder how suffering can at once feel so near and far. You don’t make pancakes again.
After rounds, you spend a few hours on your laptop writing meticulous summaries of the patients you heard about. “Hospital courses” are medical narratives stripped of human drama. Tedious to write, yet crucial for insurance and billing. This is the only role you can fill from afar. When you are done, you play chess obsessively with your husband; it’s the only game where the rules haven’t changed. You feel the weight and curve of each piece in your hand as it advances. You can predict the positions and calculate the losses. A pawn is a pawn; a king is a king.
Pregnancy or pandemic?
I cannot tease them apart. Hands on belly, I succumb to another kick.
Amrapali Maitra is a resident physician in Internal Medicine and an anthropologist in Boston, MA. She writes about care, culture, and the human experience of medicine. She has never baked bread but hopes to, someday.