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Op-Ed: I’m a doctor fighting COVID-19. Outside of the hospital, I’ve never felt more alone

Sharp Memorial Hospital workers and patients watch a flyover salute in San Diego.
Healthcare workers and patients at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego watch an April 24 flyover salute to the workers.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

As I make my way into my building’s elevator after a long hospital shift, a neighbor throws his arm out to stop me. “Sorry,” he says, “only one person per elevator.” Seeing my confusion, our doorman kindly but firmly corrects him. “Two per elevator is fine.” I take a step toward the open doors, but the passenger again holds up his palm. “Please,” he pleads, his eyes glancing frantically at my scrubs. “Please, just take a different one.”

Speechless, I take the next elevator and arrive at my New York City apartment filled with my son’s toys, untouched since he and my wife moved out nearly 40 days ago.

I have become used to the wide berth given me, the parents pushing strollers who cross the street when they see me coming or the people who take one look at me in an elevator and sprint the other direction like it’s a subway car without air conditioning in July.

My days are filled with meaning, learning on the fly to treat patients with a disease outside the scope of anything medical school taught me. But the moment I step outside the hospital doors I become untouchable, even to those I love most.

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The coronavirus has forced us to fear the invisible and to come to terms with the knowledge that anyone could be a carrier, that nobody is safe. My scrubs are my mark of Cain, my neon sign broadcasting to the world that I am someone to be avoided, someone to be feared. Walking down the street, I have never felt more alone.

In our “Dispatches From the Pandemic” series, we bring you personal stories from people whose lives have been drastically altered by COVID-19.

My wife texts me, excited that our son finally took his first steps after weeks of false alarms. I FaceTime with them over dinner. My son waves to me, then quickly becomes distracted by his spoon. I am not entirely convinced he remembers who I am.

A study of front-line healthcare workers in China showed that over half were suffering from anxiety, depression or both. Our work is harrowing, but so is the isolation we face the moment we exit the hospital.

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At 7 p.m., I look out my window as the city bursts into applause for healthcare workers. The balconies around me are filled with neighbors cheering or banging on cowbells. The man who barred me from the elevator is on his balcony, clapping.

Before bed, I read through my email and check out my social media. I hear from a friend I haven’t spoken with since high school and a cousin I’ve never met. Both say they’re keeping me in their thoughts. My Facebook feed brims with gratitude for healthcare workers. In the real world people flinch at the sight of me, but online I feel their loving embrace.

In the new world of coronavirus, the physical and the virtual are at odds, yet both are real. Healthcare workers unflinchingly face the grim reality of the coronavirus, but we need help processing that when the day is done and we face the nights alone. Virtual connectivity helps keep us sane.

When asked how to support healthcare workers fighting COVID-19, I answer simply: Reach out. A simple just “checking in” text or email can make us feel human again when the real world is telling us otherwise.

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Samuel Yamshon is a physician and hematology/oncology fellow at NewYork Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Hospital. He has been deployed to the ICU during the COVID-19 crisis.


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