A Year in Isolation
I knew moving would be hard. I left behind a world of weekend gym sessions with Amar and Nishu, getting a late-night burrito after post call or a night out, fall foliage, cousin dinners that never ended before 1am, timing the Brown and Pink ‘L’ lines, and even the merciless Chicago wind that makes a cold day colder. A world with regimented routines, familiar faces, and accustomed avenues. Moving is a part of life; an experience most people have at least once in their lifetime. A new beginning. I expected to have FOMO (fear of missing out) during intern year, but I could never have predicted what came next.
No one prepared me for moving in the midst of a global pandemic. I could only see the top half of a stranger’s face, the mask hiding a friendly smile. Six feet felt much farther when I included the emotional distance. Nonverbal communication was nonexistent. I got a welcome to residency presentation and the time/location of where to show up for my first day of work. No group lunches, team dinners, or happy hours where I could vent about the long hours and how the ‘system’ sucks. To this day, I doubt most of my co-residents can pick me out of a lineup. My patients recognize me only by my gray Patagonia fleece. Only one patient in the past year has seen what my face looks like.
Perhaps, the hardest part was that no one, including myself, could do anything about it. I had no control over the timeline of when to move. There was no option of remote work for me. The health and safety precautions were in place to prevent further infections and suffering. The call schedule is cemented in stone. I could not control the spread of covid nor the creation of new mutations. I had to play my part in helping humanity pass through this arduous time. Some days, it felt as if I was just going through the motions in a soulless daze.
For me, the realization that I was powerless came in the middle of January when I was on my medical intensive care unit rotation which coincidentally happened to be during the largest surge of COVID cases in America. I saw countless patients come in gasping for air, become intubated, only to have to declare their time of death a week later. We called each patient’s family every day with minimal updates with the culmination being an in-person goals of care meeting. The first time (and in most cases the only time) I met the family in person was to have to discuss the transition to comfort care and palliative extubation. There was nothing I could do. The patients kept following the same downward spiral. How do you give a family hope when you have no hope to give?
The level of isolation was at an all-time high. I use the word isolation in all senses of the word — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and many more. At times, I even felt isolated from myself.
I now know what it means to feel isolated. It comes in waves. Being separated from your family during a reunion. Missing a friend’s birthday. Unable to sleep at 3am in the call room. Scrolling through your Instagram feed at work. Watching a son saying goodbye to his father without being able to touch him in his last moments of life. Not knowing what your attending’s face looks like. Looking at the list of residents and not recognizing many faces. People feeling sorry for you as if you have something wrong with you.
As I enter the tail end of intern year, I finally have the bandwidth to process what I experienced. With each wave of isolation, someone or something has willed me forward. Listening to Nithya talk about her day. My parents perpetually planning my next flight to Chicago. My brother laughing at how I dented my car. Deciding to show my face (albeit only for a transient second) to more patients. Rooting for Lebron with my roommate, Andrew. Dancing in front of my mirror each morning. Seeing the bottom half of my co-intern’s face. Driving with the windows down. Seeing my fig tree sprout a new leaf. Having a senior resident check in on me in the middle of the night. Reading in the sun. Looking at old pictures and seeing how far I’ve come.
These moments all bring me back to feeling connected and give me some optimism that the isolation and powerlessness can be turned to positivity. My class of residents will forever be the intern class shaped by the pandemic; a timeless bond uniting us for years to come. Our masks and face shields were a sign of unity. A year of FOMO turned into the year of Zoom and virtual gatherings. With each end-of-life discussion, I learned something more about the incredible resilience of humanity and hope. Most importantly, I found some inner peace and solace that I so desperately needed. This was a year of many new experiences for me both personally and professionally in an unprecedented era of human history.
In a year defined by isolation, I learned how to feel connected and empowered.