Published On August 11, 2022
I reviewed the patient’s chart. She was postpartum day 1 after an uncomplicated delivery with minimal blood loss. Everything seemed routine. Then the bolded COVID status caught my eye—positive.
I tensed up. At this point my dread was less about my own safety than what had to happen next: I would need to ask another overworked, bone-tired resident to take on the risk of this patient, because I couldn’t.
In my third year of medical school I got the diagnosis: focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a syndrome that affects the kidneys. One of mine was performing at 60% and the other at 40%. Armed with a student’s zeal for the case study that had become my own body, I had researched the consults, specialists and procedures that would need to happen. I set them in motion.
By the middle of my residency, the inevitable occurred: end stage renal disease. The options were either dialysis or a transplant. My family stepped up to test for organ compatibility and my heart sank when my little sister was the match. She was in the middle of her own medical school training in Chicago, and the timing would be as bad for her as it was for me.
We both knew the score. In the hyper-competitive, pressure-cooker atmosphere of medical training, the physical health of the provider comes last. Physical limits aren’t supposed to exist, and if they do, you are definitely not supposed to make them known. The years leading to practice are a grueling marathon.
After the transplant, my sister and I decided to recover together. We lived in the same house for the first time since we were teenagers. I studied and processed data when I could for research I was helping to conduct. My sister also hustled to fill her schedule, taking virtual courses while bedridden.
Something happened during those four months. The weight of school lifted. Our whole adult lives, we had faced the cascading pressures of med school—getting in, surviving the MCAT and STEP 1, matching for residency. Now, we occasionally watched Harry Potter movies and ate my mother’s food. In the middle of chaos, we got a glimpse of what work-life balance tasted like, and it was wonderful.
After I recovered, I went into the wards to continue my residency, and my body couldn’t have been less suited to the time and place. With my immune system suppressed to keep from rejecting the new kidney, I didn’t have the ability to fight new infections. And by this time, hospitals were hotbeds of the new COVID-19 virus, with the vaccine still a distant hope.
I didn’t want anything to keep me from becoming a doctor. I did everything possible to carry on with the job. But there was a hitch every time I had a patient with COVID-19.
The worst of it was having to ask a fellow resident to cover. I hated putting someone else in harm’s way to save myself. Besides, not seeing patients went against everything we were taught, that medicine is about the person who needs help, not you.
Time and again I was tempted to sidestep the glares and the guilt and just take the risk. But how could I take care of others if I got sick?
I turned around and signaled to my co-resident down the hall. “I’m sorry, can you…” I said, holding out the chart to a haggard looking resident. Shockingly, she smiled and said, “Sure.”
I want to be a good physician. But I also want to remember those four months in recovery, and those first months back in the hospital. They taught me something about my physical and mental limits. Our bodies do exist, and they also need care. It shouldn’t take an organ donation to teach me this, but finally learning the importance of self-care was the silver lining my awful first COVID summer.
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