“Cathy, Daddy is in the hospital. He’s having problems breathing…”
I didn’t hear any of the words that followed and I immediately burst into tears. As a physician-in-training, it’s a natural reflex to think of the worst-case scenario: cytokine storm, acute respiratory distress syndrome, respiratory failure, death. These are the words that sped through my mind. I didn’t need a test to confirm what I already knew, my dad had coronavirus. What followed next, I was not prepared for…
I began to think of the last time I saw him, eight days prior, as I was leaving my childhood home in Long Island. As usual, I gave him a hug and said, “I’ll see you in a little Daddy.” That moment played, repeatedly in my head, in a never-ending loop. What if that was the last moment I would see my dad forever? What if that was the last time I had touched him alive? Why didn’t I spend more time with him that weekend? Why hadn’t I spoken to him more that week? I felt overwhelmingly guilty, then overwhelmingly sad, because I began to think of the memories I would not be able to build with him if he didn’t survive this. My brain couldn’t understand this concept. I couldn’t come to grips with the possibility that my dad wouldn’t be by my side, because there had never been a moment in my life to date where he wasn’t.
I’m a daddy’s girl through and through. It’s a running joke in my family, and I am proud to be a part of that “club.” Much of what I know and understand of the world is because of him. He’s easily the smartest man I know — singlehandedly the most humble and the most loving. Our bond was effortlessly formed, molded by years of conversation, corny dad jokes, tennis matches and music. He was the one that carried me when I succumbed to a virus at eight years old that left me in so much pain to the point that I couldn’t walk. He would play the piano, while I played the violin. He took me to my first professional tennis match at the U.S. Open, where I got to see Serena and Venus play each other in an epic showdown. And now, the prospect that 28 years of memories were all I would have of us was suddenly not enough. I wanted more. I expected more. I needed more.
“Cat, you need to be prepared, and you’re going to have to be strong for Mom.” It was my cousin, Edna, talking to me on the phone. Miraculously, my mom, even under the pressure of my dad’s respiratory distress, had the wherewithal to take my dad to the hospital, where my cousin (more like a sister) worked as a registered nurse. It was the best decision that she made that night, one that I ultimately believe saved my father’s life. Yet, in that moment, when she was telling me, in not so many words, that she didn’t think my dad would make it and that I would need to be the strong one in the family, it seemed like the worst thing.
As she explained my dad’s deteriorating condition, all of my three years of medical training and knowledge forcibly came to the surface. I knew, above all, we had to keep him from getting intubated. But from her tone on the phone as she tried to hold back tears, I understood he was not doing well and that she didn’t think he would make it, not even through the night. Honestly, in that moment, neither did I.
It is the most terrifying and sobering feeling in the world — helplessness. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, and it’s a feeling I pray none of you reading this will ever have to endure in this lifetime. In that moment, my dream of becoming a physician became a curse. While my training and medical knowledge provided me with unique insight into my father’s condition, it all pointed to the notion that he was going to be yet another digit added to the death toll of this pandemic. His medical history was far from spotless. He was a cancer survivor, lymphoma to be exact. Just three years earlier, he underwent heart surgery for a congenital defect that was caught because he had a mini-stroke, while teaching one of his college graduate courses. In addition to this, he has a significant family history of heart disease. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died of heart attacks. His brother had a quadruple bypass in his 50s. He had to have his thyroid removed because of a malignant mass. Additionally, he has a history of autoimmune issues. And, to top it all off, his WBC count runs unnaturally, naturally low. I mean really low. I’m talking 1.5 low.
Worst of all was the realization that my father was suffering alone and could die alone. That was the hardest part: not being able to be physically by his side. The days that followed were easily, the hardest of my life. The nights were the worst, because I knew from reading testimonials and from my own research, that the virus was a nocturnal monster. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t study. I had to unplug from social media because the only news I read on coronavirus was continually negative. But despite all this, there was still a part of me that believed that this couldn’t be it. This wouldn’t be the end.
We don’t give enough credit to nurses. I realize that now more than ever. Having two of my close family members (my brother and my aforementioned cousin) who work as registered nurses on the front lines of this pandemic, I have personally witnessed their resilience, selflessness and bravery in the face of harrowing adversity. It was my cousin, Edna, who during her shift breaks, would check in on my dad and force him to move, to push through the pain and to not let the virus win. She was the physical reminder my dad needed to continue to fight, despite the agony, nightly fevers, and difficulty breathing. She was the one that would hold the phone up to my father’s ear, just so I could tell him how much I loved him when he was too weak to even speak. Also, it was her exhaustive research that revealed that patients with respiratory difficulty should lie prone, as it is more comfortable and easier for them to breathe, a finding that became crucial to initiating my father’s recovery.
I realize, selfishly, that I am blessed. Blessed that my father survived this battle, albeit with some scars. Blessed that I have family members in the medical field that are invaluable in critical times. Blessed that I have lived a comfortable life because of the tenacity of my parents. But my heart aches. My heart aches for those who are underserved, uninsured and who don’t have family members or friends fighting with them on the inside — they confront this disease alone. My heart aches, for the health care workers, who even with inadequate personal protective equipment, are willing to sacrifice their lives for total strangers. My heart aches for those who have not and will not recover. And, as saddening as these realizations are, the one thing that traumatic experiences never fail to do, is to teach.
So, here’s what I’ve learned:
Life is indeed too short. When faced with the possibility of death, you truly realize that you determine what you deem is of the utmost importance. And for me, it’s family, not my medical degree.
Take time to truly enjoy the company of those you love. Bask in their presence. Join in on a hearty laugh, and make sure you don’t just say you love someone. Show it. Live it.
There is undeniable power in unity. Although my dad had a medical team on site, I, along with my cousin Sophia, who is a doctor, became additional advocates for him during this time. It was our collaboration and unity of minds that provided vital information for critical decisions. Additionally, the love and support I received via my family members and friends in the form of food, phone calls, prayers, and texts provided me with strength when I needed it most.
Listen closely to the ones around you, especially when they express concern. My younger brother, Michael, was the first one to think my dad had the coronavirus. At that time, we didn’t have much information on the symptomatology and my dad’s initial symptoms of abdominal pain and dysphagia didn’t seem to fit the bill. Ultimately he was right; even though I was the one with some medical training, it was by the way my dad looked that Michael diagnosed him on the spot.
You can be armed with all the knowledge in the world, but, unfortunately, at the end of the day that still doesn’t protect you from the nature of life. In this way, specifically in the medical field, it is ultimately the art of medicine — the human interaction — that truly matters and that has a lasting impact on the lives of patients. My dad told me that in his darkest moments, while he lay in that hospital bed with the compounded effects of isolation, all he wanted was a hug. A hug! We, as current and future medical providers, should never underestimate the power of the human touch — it is the most potent medicine.
As a forthcoming emergency medicine physician, I realize that I will have to wear several hats for my patients. I may be a therapist, a sister, a mother, a friend, but most importantly, I must be a fierce advocate for my patient. I must be the strength they need, in the bleakest moments of their lives. I must see each patient, as if they were my own father, fighting to stay alive.
Lastly, use each day to be a blessing to another human being you cross paths with. It is this practice that allows you to remain in a state of gratitude and help remind others that there are still things to be grateful for, even in this challenging human existence.
So, what do we do in the face of helplessness? We … hope. We hope for our loved ones. We hope for our patients. We hope for the workers, who sacrifice their lives on the daily. We keep the hope alive, so that when all is said and done, we can return to a world worth living in.
Because, when all else fails and we are surrounded by death, hope is the one thing that doesn’t die.
Image credit: Self photograph of the author and her father.