Probably the last normal, ordinary thing I remember is celebrating my son’s first birthday last Feb. 28. Everyone that mattered was present and was having a great time, completely unaware of the doom that was about to come a few weeks later. There was already news of a few COVID-19 cases here and there, but I guess everyone kind of thought it would just go away, much like the flu. On March 11, the World Health Organization finally declared to the world—we were officially in a state of pandemic.
It was something no one could ever have prepared for. However, unlike most of my coworkers, I had to envision a Plan B that included my 12-month-old baby in the picture. Hailing from the provinces, my husband and I had no one to turn to in this big city, nor did we know of anyone who was going through the exact same situation as we were—newbie parents who happened to be doctors, and who were now being called to the front lines in a hospital that had become a COVID-19 referral center.
As if coming home every day wasn’t stressful enough, I had to deal with a conscience that seemed to have developed a life of its own, making sure I beat myself up with guilt and worry every day. Living in a one-bedroom unit just wouldn’t do it, I thought to myself. We ended up renting another unit, the monthly dues of which were well above my monthly salary. That allayed our worries a bit, but not without a price. My husband and I had to separate ourselves from our son for a couple of weeks before we could return and hug him again.
For every adversity we had to encounter in the past, most of us were told reassuring clichés — that everything is going to be okay in the end, that there’s a rainbow after the rain or a silver lining behind the clouds. But when news of an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 seemed like a long shot, reality started to sink in: We are going to be in this for the long haul.
Other things were also running through my head. I felt a mix of grief and terror just having to think of the kind of future my son would have. How could I bring an innocent child into such a world? I was racked with unbearable guilt, and it made my stomach turn every day. There was not a single day when I didn’t think about quitting my job.
Being assigned to the COVID-19 ICU was always a dreadful experience for me, both physically and emotionally. As a doctor, you’d think I’m no stranger to death and have witnessed it in various forms on a daily basis. But no one can ever get accustomed to the amount of suffering this virus inflicts on so many. It was an endless cycle of bathos and pathos. The physical preparation I had to go through before going on duty was especially uncomfortable and cumbersome. I had to find a balance between stuffing my stomach with enough food and depriving myself of too much water to go on a full eight-hour duty inside a hazmat suit. Hunger, thirst, and exhaustion would overcome my body afterwards. Every day was just a constant struggle of getting through the day to face yet another day.
It has been eight months into the pandemic. Surprisingly, I find myself still standing here. A colleague in the hospital asked me, “How do you handle it? Isn’t it stressful having a baby during the pandemic?” It was the first time I’d been asked that question. I looked at a photo of my 1-year-old son and my husband on my desk and told him: “Yes, but I also have something to live for.”
As a physician in training, I had promised to devote myself to treating patients’ illnesses and helping them get better or live longer. But it was not until this pandemic happened that I felt the immense weight and responsibility of that promise. I found myself to be, more often than not, the bearer of bad news to patients and their families. And there was nothing that I or anyone could do about it.
In the past years of training, we were always told to set clear goals for our patients. But dealing with patients struck with COVID-19 is always difficult for us. The goal of care doesn’t necessarily have to be cure, and it very well extends to the families afflicted. I realized I needed to be more compassionate and understanding, because the conversations I make with these families may become part of their long-lasting memories of their loved ones.
I will never fully understand what it’s like to be losing someone without a proper goodbye or send-off, but I can do my best to try to make the experience a little less difficult and traumatic for their families. The last few months have indeed given me a whole new perspective on my job, but more importantly, on my own limitations as a doctor as well. Because of that realization, I’ve come to gain profound respect and compassion for other people.
This year has been tough, but it has taught me so much about the finiteness of life. We really do not have the luxury of time in this world, so we should always strive to live meaningfully, as if every day were our last. With this new perspective, I only hope to keep going forward from here on out, pandemic or not.