Some media recommendations for your consideration:
Three Years Into Covid, We Still Don’t Know How to Talk About It. This article is one of the few that resonated (more) with my experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite my professional training and expertise as a psychiatrist, I still can’t find the “right” words to describe what happened to me, the people around me, and the world. Without adequate words to create a coherent narrative of my experience, I still don’t fully understand what happened. (I hope that I will not give up trying.)
Freedom House Ambulance: The FIRST Responders. Did you know that the first modern ambulance service in the United States was developed in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh? The Freedom House Ambulance served as a model for the rest of the world.
This Book Changed My Relationship to Pain (title of the podcast, not my comment). Dr. Zoffness explains the bio-psycho-social nature of pain in an engaging way with plain language. (I am one of the many people she describes in the podcast who developed chronic pain during the pandemic; I have known since its arrival, both as a professional and as a human being, that there is significant a psychological component.) Pain is not all in your head AND the state of our minds affects how we experience pain.
Mathematician Explains Infinity in 5 Levels of Difficulty. I have always found math interesting. What I particularly enjoyed in this video is the skill Dr. Riehl shows in teaching the concept of infinity to different audiences. This is something I aspire to (and have mused about doing something like this for myself for psychiatry, à la the “Feynman Technique“). I also appreciated the similarities between the explanations she provided at level one and level five.
Salve Lucrum: The Existential Threat of Greed in US Health Care. When I read things like this, I see yet another pathway that someone can unwillingly tread upon that will result in homelessness. (Some people think they are immune to homelessness; that’s just not true.) “… unchecked greed concentrates wealth, wealth concentrates political power, and political power blocks constraints on greed”, and “[g]reed harms the cultures of compassion and professionalism that are bedrock to healing care.”
(I know it’s the holiday season and I promise I’m not actually a grinch, but here’s your warning: This is going to be kind of a bummer of a post.)
Some recent scenes for your consideration:
The sliding wooden gate did nothing to dampen the sounds of traffic on the boulevard. Inside the wooden gate was a parking lot that was now occupied by around 40 small sheds, each painted a different color. At one end was an open-air shared kitchen and a set of small bathrooms. It was snowing, the kind of wet, clumpy snow that doesn’t stick, but instead seeps immediately into clothes, hats, and sleeping bags. Though people in this “village” are still technically homeless, they were at least protected from this unusual Seattle weather. Within a few minutes of my arrival, a skinny kid, maybe eight or nine years old, wearing a sweater, shorts, and sandals, ambled outside alone to look up at the sky. Later, another skinny kid, maybe thirteen or fourteen, came out, his hands shoved into the pockets of his sweatpants and his eyes fixed on the ground. I wondered what their ACEs scores were and hoped that, as adults, they would escape and remain out of homelessness.
As I threaded my way through the city and the morning chill, I kept a mental tally: One man wearing a tank top and making grand gestures at the sky; another shirtless man pacing in tight circles; one woman wearing a soiled hoodie, with either black ink or a black substance smeared across the bottom half of her face, picking up trash from water pooled in the gutter; a man hobbling with a cane and screaming a melody; a man emerging from a collapsed tent to fold up a crinkled black tarp; a woman with bare legs and swaths of bright green caked on her eyelids who, in slurred speech, offered me a wristwatch dangling from her fingers.
I do believe that hope is a discipline. It’s hard to practice every day. But this is why I still question whether my expectations were too high. God spared us—you, dear reader, and me—during this pandemic. For what reason? What can and should we do with the gifts of our lives?
I wrote the following op-ed in late July, though never submitted it for publication: While I share an opinion, I don’t offer any solutions (and none have come to mind since then). Since President Biden has announced that the pandemic is over, now is the time to share this essay.
There is a stairwell or bathroom in every health care setting that has served as a sanctuary for medical professionals. We hold our breath and stifle our sobs while we stride towards the sanctuary; we wish to get there before anyone sees us weep. The tears fall because we learn a vulnerable patient died. A cherished colleague is leaving. A faceless health insurance reviewer has denied treatment. We run out of options to help someone because of choices an institution made. We wish we knew more, could do more.
As health care professionals, we are familiar with disappointment and sadness. Both are a part of our training and professional experience. We, however, are now experiencing enormous, unprecedented loss. Like ripples on a lake, our reactions to this loss will radiate forth and touch everyone in our communities.
The loss of life from the Covid pandemic looms over us. Over one million people in the United States have died from SARS-CoV2; we provided care to them in clinics, homeless shelters, jails, crisis centers, emergency departments, and hospitals. The individuals did not only die from Covid; others died from social consequences of the pandemic. Under- and untreated medical problems took away quality and quantity of life. Drinking, smoking, and injecting in doses too large offered relief from pain that defied description. Suicide seemed like the best choice among miserable options. We said their names and saw their faces, even as ours were covered with masks and goggles. Out of respect for patient privacy, we do not share these stories. In silence, we think of those who have died. This silence grows because we cannot find words to describe the shape, size, and saturation of our growing grief.
Even if we are able to share our sorrow, we have fewer colleagues around to listen. Diminishing clinical guidance, financial resources, and infrastructure support for health care professionals caused nearly 20% of us to either flee or flame out. (We understand why they left. We think about leaving, too.) Some retired early, others left for jobs that require less contact with distress and disease. They took with them their experience and expertise, which helped not only patients, but also us. Still others, recognizing already limited support dwindling further, took advantage of market forces and took jobs that were circumscribed in time and substantial in compensation. Health care delivery largely occurs in teams. When team members turn over frequently, the lack of team trust and cohesion often erodes the quality of care patients receive.
Earlier in the pandemic, we viewed the CDC as a part of our health care teams, as they have what many of us who work in safety net settings don’t have: Authority, public health expertise, and resources, including time to read and think. Over time, the CDC let us down: Instead of providing reliable and proactive leadership, it dithered. The CDC’s inaction forced individual agencies and clinicians to craft guidance. Why was a psychiatrist left to lead a public health response for a homelessness services agency? We wanted concrete guidance to keep people healthy and out of hospitals; we received a meager menu that deferred to the whims of politics and skeptics. We wanted tests and data to decrease disease spread and deaths; the CDC delayed sending out both laboratory and rapid tests. Recall that wealthy individuals and companies remained at home and procured tests with ease. Meanwhile, people labeled essential workers were treated as inessential: They could not access tests to protect themselves or their families. The CDC betrayed those of us who provide health care; we thus betrayed those who entrusted us with their health.
Health care workers must leave the stairwell or bathroom when our crying stops. Our tears may end, but the needs of patients do not. Physicians experiencing distress may be more prone to making medical errors. Fewer health care workers and disruptions of teams increases the work burden on those who remain, which increases their exhaustion and heartbreak. Without reliable guidance and leadership from a health authority like the CDC, we are unable to deliver unified, coherent health care. This will adversely impact not only the experiences of people who are ill, but will also result in population outcomes no one wants: More disease, more suffering, and more death. It may be too late to reverse this vicious cycle. We wish that we knew more, could do more.
Content warning: This post discusses death and suicide.
Early in my training, someone older and wiser than me made a comment in passing:
There are two types of psychiatrists: Those who have had patients die by suicide, and those who have not.
I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that all psychiatrists eventually join the group where someone under their care dies by suicide. These deaths change us.
The first time I learned that someone under my care died from suicide was during my intern year. I didn’t know him well; I do not remember his name. I was working in a psychiatric unit in a hospital and had worked with him for only one or two days. He had a diagnosis of a psychotic disorder. My sole memory of him is his flat, unblinking expression while he looked at me. Though his face showed little emotion and he said few words, he radiated discomfort.
Within a week of his discharge from the hospital, he had jumped off of a bridge.
I didn’t know how to react. I don’t remember if we had a conversation about him, if anything else had happened, or what we could have done differently.
I do remember the name of the person who killed himself after he and I had been working with each for nearly a year. He was the first of “my” patients who died by suicide.
He earned a professional degree long ago, but was living in a shelter. Alcohol brought him comfort, though it drowned his career. He argued a lot. This was the primary way he knew how to interact with people. Despite his pugnacious manner, he and I built and maintained a respectful rapport.
The medical examiner ruled that he had died from an overdose, though the official did not deem this a suicide. The toxicology report stated that there was methadone and alcohol in his system. He did not like and never used opiates.
I still think of him a few times a year. I still wish he had talked to me before he ended his life.
In any given year, I learn that one or two people under my care have died. Most of the time, the cause isn’t suicide. People age; people get sick; bad luck strikes.
Between January of 2020 and June 2022, sixteen (16) people under my care died. None of them died from Covid. The youngest was in their late 20s; the oldest was in their mid-60s. A few died from suicide; others died from medical problems (some acute, some not). Many died from overdoses. Maybe they were intentional; maybe they weren’t. I will never know.
I recently spoke with a former colleague about the various losses we have experienced over the pandemic.
“No one wants to hear it,” she said with some bitterness. “People are tired of hearing sad or bad news, so they don’t ask about our work or how we’re doing.”
She’s not wrong. It’s not easy for me to talk about it, either, as talking about it means I have to think about it, and it’s hard to think about things that do not make sense and may never make sense: What happened? What happened to us?
Maybe I just want people to know that actual human beings died, that I knew these people, that all these people meant something to someone, that they meant something to all of us who had the opportunity to know them. I wish I could tell you more about the guy who made a handmade Christmas card for me, even though he had yelled at me the first time we met just six months prior. I wish I could tell you more about the woman who had several weeks of sobriety before she collapsed on the sidewalk, her heart pulseless. I wish I could tell you more about the man who always called me “Ms. Dr. Maria” and offered me home-cooked food whenever I visited him at his apartment.
It’s okay to feel sad, angry, or disappointed; you feel how you feel. Things will change, as they always do, though they may not change as fast as we want them to. It’s also scary to express vulnerability. Voluntarily shedding the crusty carapace to reveal the soft tissue within, however, may be the best (or only) path forward.