The Heroes

From The Paris Review:

I spent the first surge worried I would kill my husband. I am a doctor and he has bad lungs. He does also have his own exposures, even works in the hospital—spiritual care. Suddenly the grieving were also infectious. Some nights, over the drinks we started to always have, we would wonder out loud which of us was the hero of the story of our lives. The hero is the one who will survive this.

Back then, when one of us had worked in emergency or consulted on the COVID wards, we would sleep in separate rooms. Now we do that work every day, and we don’t always want to be alone. I feel in my body that this grief will be permanent, although the doctors who run my residency program speak only of resilience when they speak of the pandemic at all. They show a bored sort of disbelief in their trainees’ new and universal disinterest in anything educational. Why become a doctor if you can’t handle all this death? Far from the bedside, the men in charge get stars in their eyes when they describe this historic time. Online, the crowds are less inspired. Do your job, say the comments under first-hand accounts of working COVID units in US hospitals.

Hero or not, I am someone who never outgrew a child’s world view, cast centrally in the drama of all human life. Survivors of abuse often get stuck in this place, in the permanent self-centeredness of having a weak sense of self. Raised in a setting of neglect and violence, I carry the loaded diagnosis of complex PTSD. Now that I am also, somehow, a medical doctor, I tend toward stubborn self-importance and I do not suffer well. My husband, in contrast, as a hospital chaplain, is a certified calming presence, friend to the sick, broken and alone, a professional beast of burden. Neither disposition, I can tell you now, rises better than the other to this particular moment, though it may be useful to have been traumatized in advance.

Early in the first surge they banned the chaplains from the hospital. This was when we received daily updates on the supply of PPE, with gowns, face shields, and N95s always in the red. It didn’t take long to see the work was untenable. The late-April suicide of ER doctor Lorna Breen inflected our profound collective despair. In make-shift ICUs, patients were dying of unwitnessed self-extubation, dying when their IV bags of blood pressure bolsters ran out faster than the nurse could change them, the nurse who could safely staff two or three patients but was caring for closer to ten. Even if you could set aside these extraordinary early horrors, you still had to hold the cumulative weight of all those unattended deaths, the phones held up to ventilated faces, the sounds of the cries on the other end, room after room, again and again.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review