Sacred Stories | Care In the Time of COVID-19
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Galatians 5:14
I first met Tabitha when she was five or six years old, a child full of energy and confidence. I was a new family practice doctor starting out in a small community, and she was one of my first patients.
Years flew by, my practice changed, and Tabitha grew to be a confident woman. Over time I gradually gave up OB and hospital care and became more office focused. I would see Tabitha from time to time. Eventually, I saw her less often because her health insurance was not contracted with my practice.
Then came 2020, the year we would all like to forget. The COVID-19 pandemic hit our practice hard. As pandemic related shutdowns set in, receipts dropped 70% and we could no longer cover our overhead. The other physicians and I in our small practice made the painful decision to close. After working for decades, it’s somewhat awkward to have to look for a new job: it affects your confidence and self esteem. But I was most worried about the patients who suddenly had no physician.
Fortunately, I was hired by a local clinic that is a part of CommonSpirit Health; they allowed me to keep my practice essentially unaltered. I sent postcards to my patients to let them know where to find me.
In addition to the challenges of having a new job and learning a new electronic medical record, I’ve been struggling to understand this COVID-19 virus. Everything we think we know about it seems to change every few weeks. It’s caused a complete disruption of the dynamics of family practice. We wash hands continuously; we isolate and socially distance; and we struggle to hear and understand our patients through the masks we all wear.
Soon after I began my new employment, Tabitha came to see me with a complaint of anxiety. She was anguished, tearful and not at all the poised woman I had known. She sobbed as she spoke through her mask, but gradually I pieced together her situation. Her mother just recently died of cancer; her father – and several of her close friends – had also died in recent years. “And when I needed you, your office was closed,” Tabitha said. “I thought you had left me, too!”
There are no lab tests, imaging studies or other diagnostic tools that could help. We were both masked with clean hands, and – as used to be a normal occurrence in my practice in pre-COVID times – I reached out and hugged her, using the last tool left in my physician’s toolbox. I held on while she shook and sobbed, absorbing some of her pain. After a while, we progressed to referrals for counseling, medication and followup appointments.
A career in family medicine is full of moments of hoping you did the right thing. This is one time I am confident that I did not only what was right but what was necessary, and I look forward to the time when we can see one another’s full facial expressions, join hands, and hug without worry.
Until then, I’ll continue to promote safety; but once in a while, the care and compassion I have for my patients – and what is foundational to my humanity – will take control of the care and healing of my patients. Whether this is good or bad, I am not sure; I only know it is me.
Submitted by A Family Physician
Questions for Reflection
How can we show care when there are no medical “tests/tools” left to help?
In this unprecedented time, how can we “love our neighbors as ourselves” and creatively show compassion to our patients and colleagues?
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