I’m an Urgent Care Doctor. A Year into the Pandemic, I’m Running on Empty.

And yearning to regain a foundation of wellness amidst the relentless, endless layers of my grief.

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On March 22, 2021 a mass shooting took place at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. The day after the tragedy, I went in for my shift at my urgent care in Denver that predominantly serves communities of color.

I was not mentally ready to work. Immediately upon walking in, management took us through our active shooter protocol. There was no time to focus on the horrific loss of life that had just occurred; instead, we immediately addressed how we would limit loss of life in our setting if faced with similar circumstances. “What are you going to do when the man with the gun comes at you? You run, you hide, and worst case scenario, you fight like hell.” If this situation were ever a reality in our particular setting, we all knew the potential for loss of life was high.

Shortly thereafter, we started taking care of patients. An unresponsive patient was brought in emergently. It was go time, and the team worked to save the man’s life. Another overdose in a rising string of overdoses we had faced in the last year. We have brought so many people back to life over this last year. Too many are seeking solace, and peace in harmful behaviors. We stabilized him and transferred him to a higher level of care. At some point, I took a 15 minute break to eat lunch. The only moment of quiet since the day began. Before I knew it, it was time to get back out there to take care of the next patient.

I have done this work for the last year, moving with the ebbs, and flows of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes my efforts are focused on helping people fight for their physical life, and sometimes they’re focused on helping people fight for their emotional life. 

My health center’s community base has been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 tornado. They are more likely to get infected, hospitalized, and die. COVID-19 was a mirror that displayed the atrocious inequities that our society has accepted for far too long. The community I serve struggles to feed, clothe, and house their children. They are losing their elders as well as their young. They have so much unchecked mental health instability. The story of the young man who overdosed is sadly common; the trauma of the community clearly overflowing.

I am a healer. But I am, also, potentially the destroyer. Touch represents flip sides of the same coin.

That trauma attaches to me, and I take it home every day. Add to that my fears that I am bringing home the infection to my family. Not only do I have to care for my patients, but I also have to care for my family, and myself. It has become a regular routine for me to shower in a separate bathroom, keep my “contaminated” work items in a place my family wouldn’t access, and “sterilize” myself before touching my family. I often feel like a walking petri dish who at any moment could wreak the same havoc I witnessed in my health center in my own home. I am a healer. But I am, also, potentially the destroyer. Touch represents flip sides of the same coin.

As if that weren’t enough, a constant thread through this time is the ongoing racial, and social justice inequities evident around the world. From Ahmaud Arbery/Breonna Taylor/George Floyd stories to EndSARS in Nigeria to the farmer protests in India to the military coup in Myanmar to the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC, it has been a constant cycle of harm, protest/revolt, and chaos. And of course, most recently, the mass shootings in Boulder, and in Atlanta. A senseless loss of life, sometimes centered on racism, and always ensconced in holding certain populations of people above all others. We hold the allowed recklessness of a relative few above the security of the majority.

These are the moments in which I realize I am constantly peeling off layers as though I were an infinite artichoke attempting to get to the heart where solace lies. Every day there are more layers of my grief, and that heart continues to be just out of reach. As I look back on these last 12 months, I often wonder how I survived it. I feel like I am in an MMA match, taking hit after kick, with no time to process one of these horrific events, let alone all of them. These events continue to stream into life day after day dropping their grief, and adding yet another layer to our collective sense of devastation and pain.

How do we approach this level of trauma when it is on such a large scale? What mechanisms do we have to support each other when there is a global scarcity of empathy because so many are running on empty? Do we as individuals, and as a nation, have the infrastructure, skills, and the resilience to navigate these uncharted waters of a health pandemic on top of a racism pandemic?  

These questions run through my mind on repeat. I am unclear on where to focus. I live in Colorado. I am South Asian. I am a female doctor on the front lines. I have young children who attend schools where they have routine lockdown drills. I believe in social progress. I demand racial justice. And so, I feel all these feels. All the time. And it is exhausting. 

These moments of grief strip you bare, and before you have time to replenish yourself, you are faced with the next moment. I am constantly oscillating between fight or flight, and crisis fatigue.

These moments of grief strip you bare, and before you have time to replenish yourself, you are faced with the next moment. I am constantly oscillating between fight or flight, and crisis fatigue. Crisis fatigue is described as a human response to unrelenting stress that can cause a person to feel physically, and emotionally numb or tired. That is my daily roller coaster, and right in the middle of that ride is grief. With every turn of that roller coaster, I am drenched in heartache, loss, and devastation. I know I am not alone, and many find themselves in this same reality, often experiencing this roller coaster with greater climbs, and lower dips.

I yearn to regain a solid foundation of wellness. For myself, my family, and the community I serve. And since there may be no true return to our previously typical life, we are now challenged with the daunting task of creating our new healthy norm. For me, that will involve finally acknowledging all of these layers of my grief. Maybe then I will reach the heart of that artichoke.  

Thresia (Teena) Sebastian is a pediatrician with a specialty in public health. She lives in Denver with her husband and her two children.

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