The alarm goes off. I wake my kids, get them dressed, brush their teeth. I hug them a little longer than usual. Run my hands through their hair. They get wiggly, and I let them out onto our balcony. It’s an enclosed space off the third floor, about the size of a bedroom. It’s fresh air, a space to be loud (sorry neighbours!) and some vitamin D.
We go downstairs, they get breakfast, I get tea, and I try to help get them set up for the day. My eldest, the 5-year old, has e-learning. He’s bright as a whip with the attention span of a pregnant goldfish, a wild creature who lives to run and move and make his friends laugh. These days are hard. He tells me he’ll try harder today, but I know he is trying as hard as his developing brain can. This just isn’t how 5-year-olds are supposed to be learning. The two-year-old is blissfully oblivious to most of the changes. I kiss them both one last time and go to the door.
Will today be the day I can’t come home? Should I have hugged them a little harder, a little longer? My sister sees the look in my eyes and sends me all the strength she can: We’ll see you soon. I am eternally grateful to her for being here, for having moved from another province to help me. I’m a single mom, and a cardiac surgeon. In these harrowing days, family support is a blessing I do not take for granted. There are not strong enough words to express my gratitude.
I cover up as much as I can. I am carrying only my hospital ID, phone, a credit card, and a folded cloth bag. Everything, including my clothes, will get sanitized and washed when I get home. If I get home. My hair is tied up and covered to keep a layer between me and others coughing on me. I wear a mask. It won’t protect me, but as a health care worker I am more likely to contract COVID-19, and the rate of asymptomatic carriers is high. I didn’t spend my life learning how to help people heal to be the vector that kills people I never met. Don’t worry though, I use the same mask everyday, no PPE wasted here.
I get to the hospital. It’s familiar but different now. The walls and doors and people are the same, but the vibe, the soul, it’s instantly heavy. We are greeted by a masked security guard who ask for ID. We queue six feet apart to scan our ID. “Have you had any symptoms of the flu, fever, cough, travel history….”. A quick no, and a beep, and we sanitize our hands. Next step: “will you be in a patient-facing area?” and we are handed three flimsy masks in a plastic bag. I thank the volunteer handing them out. There’s no need to comment on how insufficient this is to keep me safe, my children safe, my patients safe. We all know. But we hold these masks like talismans, warding off evil. May they be enough. At least for today. It’s a pandemic after all, front line workers can only deal with one day, one patient at a time. If we look too far ahead the incoming tsunami will drown us in our own fear. So for today, we take our masks, sanitize our hands and keep going.
I tie on my first mask and head down the hall. People give each other a wide berth. We may be smiling at each other, but you can’t tell. Fear looms in the eyes peering over the blue fabric. Get my scrubs. Try not to touch anything but I have to touch the handle of the scrub dispenser. There’s no sanitizer nearby; it’s been empty for days. I assume it gets filled but its always empty anyhow. I use the plastic bag my masks came in to open the dispenser door, grab my scrubs and head up. I open doors and press elevator buttons with the same plastic bag. Finally get to the call room, open one last door and go inside to change. Plastic bag in the garbage. Sanitize hands. Clothes come off and go into cloth bag, trying to only let the outsides of fabric touch each other. Scrubs go on, and it’s time to head to the OR. Walk quickly. Don’t touch anything. Clean hands often. Don’t scratch my nose. Don’t adjust the hair cover. Don’t touch the mask. Don’t panic. Nothing has gone wrong, yet, today.
The OR feels more normal. Most of us are used to seeing each other in scrubs, masked and hair covered. There’s a bravado here to which I am well accustomed. Fear isn’t allowed in the operating room; fear begets mistakes. But everything takes longer than it normally would. The nurses have run out of goggles and the case is delayed. Anesthesia is double masking, gowning, covering necks, in a new system that requires a buddy and signs up on the wall to remind everyone of the new sequence. Everything pauses for 15 minutes to let the invisible droplets settle. This is very hard for teams driven by efficiency; we grow uncomfortable staring at each other and making small talk. Fear nibbles at the edges of our consciousness, reminding us why all of this is necessary. The minutes tick by painfully. But if it keeps my friends and colleagues safe it’s worth it, every single minute is worth it. Reports of doctors and nurses dying in New York, Italy and Spain are not falling on deaf ears.
Do we have enough personal protective equipment (PPE)? The worry niggles at us all. Should we be sterilizing masks, saving gowns? Two weeks from now will we remember aghast how we threw disposables away? There it is, the whisper hinting at the roar of the incoming tsunami, rolling inexorably in this direction. Stop. Look away. Focus on this patient; hope and pray that the claims of sufficient PPE are backed with supplies those of us on the front lines don’t see.
Focus on the patient, do our job. Be kind to each other. Maybe a little kinder than usual. Tempers are high. Everyone is a little irritable. It’s the fatigue, the worry. We are all self aware. We know this is only the beginning. But we are all in this together, and together we can make it through.
Dr. Samantha Hill