Social distancing has had differing effects on each of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our personal and professional lives we experience the absence of interpersonal interactions unless there is a dire need or essential role, the muting of facial expressions and muffling of intonations of voice, and the relegation of hugs to immediate household members differently. The raging extrovert and empath in me has been emotionally bereft since March 13th (because yes, I do take the risk of virus transmission seriously).
For the last 24 hours I have been spontaneously bursting into tears at random moments of the day. For the first time in nearly half a year I experienced human touch from someone other than my spouse or my children and every time I think about that moment I cry. I am not clear if these are tears of joy or of sorrow.
I rushed the love of someone’s life to the OR urgently. The risk was extraordinarily high and time was of the essence. Due to the pandemic, I was unable to meet family in person and had this terrifying conversation filled with uncertainty regarding life or death over the telephone. My team and I did everything we could and were able to get the patient off the table. When someone has surgery their family can visit the hospital. I went to speak with the patient’s husband in person not long after we finished our damage control surgery. It was clear that our intervention had not had its intended effect. The patient was dying and her husband decided not to pursue further heroic efforts.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I stood a few feet away from my patient’s spouse. We both wore masks. My face was further obscured by my full wrap eye protection. I said, “I am so sorry.” He reached up for my shoulders and said “Thank you. Thank you for everything you did. She lived a good life.” I hesitated awkwardly for a split second. Then I let him hug me. COVID be damned. He wanted to hug me and I needed to be hugged.
Today, more than 24 hours after call ended, my body still aches from the 28,000 steps taken and the many contortions in several operations. And, the feeling of that hug lingers with me. I cry because I am heartbroken for a stranger’s loss – my entire relationship with the patient and her family lasted less than 4 hours. I cry because it felt so wonderful to be embraced, even so briefly, even though under such circumstances, by someone other than my immediate household members.
I am grateful to be able to do the work that I do to save lives and even more so for the family members who lift me up even when my efforts as an acute care surgeon fail. But when a pandemic is stealing lives from our populace and joy from so many aspects of my life, a stranger’s hug is the best reminder of why I keep showing up day after day.