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How Do You Cope When Fear Has Replaced Hope?

photo credit: Ashim D’Silva

By Michelle Myles, MD

The light from the evening sun is strong against my now heavy eyes. I’m sitting in my car after a shift and I can see the fiery outline of my N95 across my face in the rearview mirror. I breathe in and out, almost surprised when I’m not met with the smell of plastic and hot air. I try to ignore the tension headache that slowly mounted throughout my shift. I didn’t drink enough today. I mean to, but too often the thought of having to doff my personal protective equipment to get a sip of water seems like too big of a task. 

It’s been hard to calm the storm that is my mind. Some days are easier than others, but today isn’t one of those days. Don’t get me wrong, work makes it easier. If I can channel my focus on a patient or task, I can tame the scary thoughts and the seething tempest becomes more of a passing shower. But in the moments of quiet, like this one here and now, I am failing.

Is this pandemic ever going to end? 

Will “normal life” ever be as it was? 

In March I remember thinking: “there’s no way this will last through the summer”. Now, I scoff at my naivety. 

I think about my future and wonder: will my residency training be affected? Will I still learn what needs to be learned? We try our best to keep what has worked for so many years, working, as we navigate new waters. But, inevitably, we’ve had to adapt. 

The storm rages.

Will someone I love be COVID’s next victim? Or worse: will I be the reason?

Is this socially distanced hell our new norm?

I suppose six feet apart is better than six feet under...

As a starry-eyed baby doc last June, I was full of anxiety for the venture that lay ahead, and it was the good kind of anxious, you know? Like the anxiety you feel before your first date. The anxiety that tickles your insides on the first day of school after a long summer vacation, as you wait to see which of your friends will be in your class. The anxiety that bubbles into your chest like the soda you share with your middle school crush. Today’s anxiety is different. It’s the nagging ache in my belly that greets me each morning. It’s the lump in the back of my throat every time I end a facetime call with my family. 

I close my eyes and try to think of happier thoughts. 

The day my fiancé proposed: the streets were bathed in a fresh winter snow as he knelt on one knee. I swear I woke up smiling for a month.

My med school graduation: “Dr. Michelle Lynne Myles,” my Dean announced, officially. My family cheering gleefully from the crowd of proud onlookers.

When I first became an aunt: his tiny hand around my finger sealed my devotion. 

Barbeques in the summer with family and friends: my Dad is manning the grill in his typical fashion, sharing his life wisdom with a group of my brother’s friends.

These thoughts can usually quell the fears, at least temporarily.

On a normal day, before the COVID era, when something frightened me—illness, death, or a scary situation—I would find myself looking to someone senior to know what to do. As a child, this was usually a parent, an older sibling or a teacher. The monsters in my closet stood no chance against my father’s stern voice, and a scrape on a knee was no match for my mother’s embrace. As a fledgling intern, when the fear was paralyzing or the self-doubt threatened to swallow me whole, I would look to an attending or senior resident. The stoic poise of one of my seniors could usually put my fears at ease, often leaving me with the thought: “Wow, that is going to be me someday.” My fears, almost as quickly as they came, would subside and I trusted in the system that I too would someday be as competent and knowledgeable as my mentors. 

Now, in COVID era, when I’m feeling scared, I look to these individuals and I see something different. In my eyes, they are still the brave and confident women and men who I’ve come to know and love. They’re everything I hope to be some day. But there are fleeting moments when I can see their fear.

I see worry lines cross the brow of my attending as he prepares to intubate the patient that may have COVID. I’m sure these lines were there before, but they’re deeper in this moment, despite the face shield that tries to hide them. I hear physician leaders taking to social media, the news, and other outlets to advocate voraciously for adequate PPE. The tension amongst the medical community is palpable as it questions how or why our government left us vulnerable against an invisible enemy without adequate protection. 

I recognize soon-to-graduate seniors, whose faces were once so spry, now dampened by the fear of the unknown and the future job market. 

I see the medical community fighting against this behemoth of a virus. We try to pay tribute to those we’ve lost through memorials on the internet and the news, but we fear it isn't enough. 

“I don’t know,” becomes a more commonplace response.

Somewhere along the way, these fears, doubts, and questions became mine. And it makes me wonder, is the system broken? Can I still trust in it? Will I get to be the confident attending physician to some starry-eyed intern some day? These fears haunt me each day, but I only allow them a brief stint in the spotlight, for if I allow them to linger any longer, they overcome me. 

I open my eyes. It started to rain. In the horizon, I can see the sun casting pink hues against the landscape. I look in the rearview. The redness on my face is subsiding. The tension in my neck loosens.  I pull out of the hospital parking lot and start my journey home. 

I take the long way. I drive past my favorite restaurant and peek through the windows, envisioning a group of my closest friends huddled around a high-top table. We’re laughing about the time my sister ate a worm for gas money back in highschool. I detour through the neighboring town to pass by my sister and brother’s houses, imagining my nieces and nephews sitting around the dinner table, playing with their food and making us laugh. When I pull into my driveway, I can see the warmth of the kitchen lights through my rain spattered windshield, almost as if they’re saying “welcome home.” 

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