Suffering and Overwhelmed

On the PBS period drama, Poldark, the faithful village doctor, Dwight Enys, languishes as a prisoner of war. He scrapes together rags and crumbs to care for his wounded comrades. Their captors humiliate and torture the prisoners, finding ever crueler ways to break their spirits. They are starved, but Dr. Enys gives his bread crust to a patient with a septic wound who requires tending day and night. He establishes a practice and a pattern of caring for this patient, and gradually, after weeks, the man is convalescing as Dr. Enys gingerly cradles his head in his lap while conferring with a younger colleague prisoner. Laughter is heard from the direction of the officers, as a soldier snatches the patient to the floor and shoots him. Dr. Enys cries in agony. 

@DrJaimeFriedman recently expressed thanks to frontline healthcare workers, to which @MorningAnswer countered with “suffering and overwhelmed? Ha. What she means to say is ‘busy.’”

After 9 months of pandemic clinical practice, research, public health interventions, a lockdown and a reopening, a second wave tsunami appeared on the horizon. Calls to prepare were met by such mocking and protesting and denying, I watched my colleagues do the twitter version of pacing the floor, horrified and ruminating over how much different this could all be. 

At the height of the Spring chapter of the COVID19 pandemic, in one of the most prosperous cities in the history of the world, during peacetime on our shores, I provided critical care to COVID19 patients  in frankly substandard conditions. But we strove, we checklisted, we proned, we researched, we truly cared. Everyone on my team cared. Patients with COVID19 might code shortly after arrival, but more commonly, they smoldered for weeks. And then, very often, we lost them. At noon, there was free pizza. At 7 p.m. there was applause. The city mourned with us. 

Healthcare workers have been at this for months. Not just working in it, but living it. As predicted, the Second Wave has crashed over us. Instead of listening to the warnings of the wounded, society has collectively decided to resist caring. To call us sentimental snowflakes for being affected. Why was the dramatization of Dr. Enys’s heartbreak relatable? Because we do care that much. I can’t explain to someone why a human would be affected by the death of another human. Why 250,000 deaths might inflict morally injury on a healthcare force that can see out of this fishbowl to other nations who are getting it somewhat right. 

There’s another TV drama anecdote that I’ll never forget. Early in the Gray’s Anatomy series, George is asking why he should do CPR on a clearly deceased trauma patient, when Miranda Bailey’s tongue lashing smartly educates him: “So we can tell their family we did everything we could.” As a community, we cannot say we did everything to avoid the deaths of our neighbors. Shouldering on in such a reality is demoralizing. Being told we should thicken our skin and simply care less is the ultimate insult to our profession. 

We are overwhelmed by the vastness of a pandemic that has been allowed to spread rampantly through our cities and small towns. And yet, we are striving to convince leaders and civilians that WE are not the adversary. We are suffering the pain of loss and upended plans. We are not soldiers. We are not heroes. We are members of the communities we serve, and we may be suffering and overwhelmed.