Under our masks, my new patients and I do not know how we really look. My former patients and I recognize each other only through our eyes. We are moving through this maddening 2020 year, not knowing when we will be the next one to contract the invisible virus that could end all the plans we had made for our future.
The sadness and stress of 2020 is something so unreal to most people. The world becomes surreal with grandparents having to wave to their grandchildren from front porches with no more hugs and kisses. Affection can kill. College students come home and are quarantined in their basements, wearing masks around their parents for two weeks, eating alone from trays left by the basement door. Can we remember a year when being alone is the “in” thing, because socialization might shorten your life? Has there been a Thanksgiving gathering where everyone raises their glass of wine from their own home to family members on the computer screen? We are living in a maddening year when ICU staff Facetime with family members to help them bid goodbye to dying relatives. There was no funeral during the months when COVID deaths peaked. People left this world all alone, with strangers looking like space aliens staring at them in silence.
I started the year with a wondrous trip to Vietnam, roaming the exotic countryside that I never saw as a child growing up in South Vietnam. I am now nostalgic for the freedom of traveling abroad, sitting on planes for more than 20 hours, walking shoulder to shoulder with the crowds in big cities without thinking that one of them can inadvertently cause my demise with a deadly virus. By the end of March, my office had closed down except for emergency appointments. I spent almost three months seeing several patients daily on Zoom. My friends and I stopped walking with each other on our Sundays on the C&O canal, a tradition we had carried on for several years. Gone too were my Saturday bootcamps and Sunday afternoon Yoga classes. The interactive world I used to know has all become a virtual one.
I got COVID testing twice, the first time at Sibley hospital in Washington D.C. outside the emergency room, and the second time driving through the main garage at Suburban hospital. Both times, the test was uncomfortable. The staff member in their “space suit” counted out loud to ten, as the Q tip swirled around up my nostrils, giving a burning sensation that travelled to the top of my head. For the following 24 hours, I kept wondering nervously if I would have to be quarantined for two weeks after the results came back. I was negative both times.
I am grateful to see each patient in the office now, as if we both recognize that we belong to the “survivor club.” We did not perish in loneliness as more than 300,000 Americans did. We are still here, watching the news nightly to see the curve of deaths and the roll out of vaccines that hopefully will slow down that curve. Witnessing death and dying and the fear around it can be exhausting.
I am grateful for the wide space around me, the woods, the streams, the hills where I climbed and looked for some signs of spring. I roamed the bamboo groves near my neighborhood in early spring and learned to cook the shoots I harvested. I had a wild edible cooking book in my hand in the summer and fall, looking for wild plants I could add to my salads. The birds, had they been here before, the tiny green birds which their energetic wings dashing in and out my yard? Why didn’t I notice these living things around me before? Was I asleep all these years in this active world? It took a virus for many of us to begin living our grateful life.
I don’t know when I will get vaccinated, but I know we all need to wear our masks for many months to come to protect each other, even after our vaccination. It has been a maddening ride through 2020. I miss seeing my friends and family members. I miss my normal activities of leisurely going to the Farmer’s markets, selecting fruits and vegetables without wondering how many people had touched them before me. I miss the time when people did not have to scurry away as I approached them. We are now each other’s plague.
I miss sitting in the lunch room with my office staff; as I now have lunch alone in my office, where I feel safer when taking off my mask. I especially miss going to the gym, spinning and breathing hard on a bike or jumping like a wild thing in my aerobic classes. Working out while wearing a mask is not an acceptable activity for me yet, or maybe ever.
My physician friends and I are getting impatient while waiting to be vaccinated. It is like we are prisoners waiting for their paroles. Maybe by summer 2021, we will still wear masks, but not be afraid to watch the news to see the death toll. Maybe by the end of 2021, I will finally see the real faces of my new patients from this year. I hope all of them will come back alive and well. We rode the maddening train together through this valley of death, and will look back wondering how it could have been such a maddening ride to begin with? Did we, as a society, learn anything from this tragedy?