Have you ever stood over a pot of water, awaiting the precise second it boils, massive bubbles of water quickly rise to the surface in the blink of an eye and pours over, steaming the stove plate.
You’re waiting in intense anticipation for the moment the bubbles show themselves, so you can move the pot over, but the moment the water reaches boiling point, its out of control and spills over the edge so fast, you’re too late and you have scalded hands and a mouth full of foul words.
Imagine this scenario once. Now imagine it 100000 times over. In the heart and mind of every Healthcare worker in South Africa, the boiling point in limbo. For some, the boiling point has come and gone, years into public service has offered you the proverbial “thick skin” we all hope for but seem to miss. For others, the boiling point is at a distance, only drawing closer with every minute. And for the majority, the boiling point is now, actively pouring over into our lives, hearts, minds and souls.
I recently had a conversation with a family member and 1 minute into it, I paused. I was trying to explain to her the reason why medicine is “not just a job”. She could not for the life of her, understand why I think about work, when I’m not at work.
In my pause, I decided to abandon the conversation simply because nothing I could say would ever truly express the reality of the situation. Should I waste my precious ATP on this (again)? I can’t. I dont have any left.
I cant explain the realities of the medical world unless you’re in it. Some degree of floor work is necessary to understand the intricacies of the medical world. I wouldn’t truly understand what a soldier at war feels post taking a human life, and neither would I understand what a mother feels after delivering a human child.
These unique situations require a real amount of experience to allow for pure contextualization of the situation. You need to be in the situation and not just the environment. I need you to be me, to understand how I feel. And you will never, therefore you can never.
“But you’re a doctor” she said. With a certain degree of pride and smile.
I hunched over, almost in embarrassment.
What does that even mean? And to whom?
The “I’m a doctor” almost-pompous naivity lasted about 1 hour into my 1st day of internship. The moment I realised the trade off between “I’m a doctor” was being a human being. Because God forbid, you cannot be both.
Doctors are beings that survive off fresh air, destined to serve the whims of the world. They are live in the halls of the hospital, without complaint. They only eat when time permits. They do not sleep and never tire or mention the prospect of it. They are ever happy, healthy and ready. They do not fall ill or have families that need them. They abandon their own life, safety and health for the needs of others. They never get emotional or feel any inkling of emotion, because that is unprofessional. And an unprofessional doctor is no doctor at all.
I couldn’t possibly be a doctor.
No one can.
Here lies the problem. The construct of what a doctor should be is absolute Ludacris and laughable. The expectation is so unrealistic and the culture of medicine has only perpetuated it. The worst part is, doctors try so hard to live up to it instead of just surrendering to their humanity.
I had a conversation with a friend who told me about the COVID situation in her department. 3 people had fallen ill and were absent from work for 10 days. She was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, her boiling point had far surpassed. She had a sick baby who was recovering from gastro and couldn’t be at home to take care of her. What kind of a mother am I, if I cant take care of my sick child? I had no answers.
I listened helplessly, comforting her, telling her the 24 hour calls would end, she would eventually recover and smile again. She teared up and said “They’re not even ventilated in ICU, they could still work”. Her hesitation and guilt soon followed.
I saw the weight of her guilt. It was massive. We moved the conversation on swiftly as to avoid engagement.
Later on i thought, that is everything that’s wrong with medicine, summed up in just 1 sentence. While I completely understand the staff shortage, the standard of care we try and keep, and the ever building medico-legal cases, the reason medicine has become a superhuman sport, is because we simply cannot keep up.
How can we expect to treat patients like humans if we don’t treat each other like one? I don’t know the answer. I’m still growing accustomed to treating myself like the human being i am.
Now, more than ever, the personal cost has become insurmountably high. A tiny virus has shattered the fragile construct of the medical world, exposing all our vulnerabilities at once. It feels overwhelming, not knowing if you have covid or not. Going home to your family, not knowing if the covid you have is now also theirs. The worry is ever present along with fear and paranoia.
My throat feels dry. Did I wash my hands before putting on my mask last night at 11PM? At 4am, I was struggling with a drip and my mask slipped off my nose. I adjusted it in haste. Maybe its covid. Maybe its the flu. Maybe its dehydration. Let me hydrate. I opened my water bottle without sanitizing my hands. Maybe I didn’t have covid and now I do.
It goes on and on and on..
This pandemic has put us in a unique situation. We are forced to deal with our humanity and fragility. No matter who you are or what you do, you are not safe from Covid 19. Let us use this opportunity to understand this, be kinder, more gentle, overtly understanding and hopeful. After all, each other is all we have.