Love (and medicine) in the time of COVID-19
For medical students, this is entirely uncharted territory
As I witness the unfolding of a pandemic from behind a computer screen in Calgary, intentionally distanced from my dearest loved ones, I've found myself thinking often of the book Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, the renowned author and Nobel Laureate.
Set in Colombia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it chronicles a love that endures for decades, set against the backdrop of the disease cholera. It's the disease many attribute to the founding of modern epidemiology.
In the book, Márquez describes the feeling of yearning for an absent or unrequited love — what we call 'lovesickness'. Practicing social distancing — though unarguably essential to curbing this pandemic — has made me, too, feel lovesick. I yearn, as we all do, for my friends and family. For the joy of gathering in communities.
This book feels particularly apropos to the current moment because COVID-19 serves as the context to all else that happens to us right now. Today's life events, achievements, losses, relationships — they all take place in the time of COVID-19.
For medical students like myself, this means that we are learning how to become doctors in the time of COVID-19.
Too early to join
Like thousands of my fellow medical students across Canada, I've been asked to leave the classrooms and hospital wards, self-isolate at home, and prepare for remote learning.
During wartime, every member of a community — regardless of profession — assumes a role crucial to collective survival. For many Canadians, our critical contribution is staying at home and committing to social distancing.
As first-year medical students who have only just begun our journeys as healers, our role is to listen and learn. It can be frustrating to watch from the sidelines as our physician mentors charge heroically into battle, knowing it is too early for us to join.
But we bear witness. We cheer for them earnestly. And we take notes — readying ourselves for when we're called to help.
This is entirely uncharted territory in modern medical education, but our training continues.
Lectures are online, and our group learning is delivered via teleconference.
We rely increasingly on our med school classmates (from a distance) for love and guidance. As each day passes, we grow emotionally more intimate with each other, dreaming of the warm embraces we hope to share after the pandemic is declared ended and the curve flattened.
We echo each other's fears regarding the trajectory of COVID-19 and disappointment around the cancellation of our opportunities to see patients, while of course recognizing why this is necessary.
My friends and peers have offered support to help cope with the radical changes to our learning and uncertainties ahead, posting compassionate messages to communal chats and Facebook groups.
"Please, please don't hesitate to reach out. These are challenging circumstances and we'll get through them together."
"I'm always here if you want to talk."
Like the protagonist in Love in the Time of Cholera, we are lovesick for each other, for our families we can't see, and for the futures we can't predict.
Though our training has changed significantly, our excitement at the prospect of becoming practicing physicians has not dimmed.
Rather, it has been set ablaze as we observe from afar our clinician mentors, seeing the compassion, strength of character, and selflessness with which they rise to the occasion.
A few themes arise in the words of wisdom they've shared, the war-weary clinicians. A sense of togetherness; of camaraderie among soldiers. Acceptance of sacrifice. Of taking immense pride in public service.
Despite having to leave the hospital wards, medical and nursing students have responded by mobilizing from the outside, for example by offering childcare and grocery deliveries to overburdened healthcare workers.
Many of my senior colleagues, final-year medical students, have been calling the contacts of potential COVID-19 cases to identify those most at risk of contracting the virus next.
Those of us at the beginnings of our medical careers are grateful for the shining examples set by all doctors, healers, and helpers today.
When I now think about what type of physician I'd like to become, I strive for the attributes espoused by these helpers. Attributes which transcend any medical specialization: kindness, collegiality, leading calmly despite calamity.
We grieve for the lives already lost to the pandemic and for those we are yet to lose.
We grieve for the communities whose health and safety are compromised by its members who continue to travel for leisure and who refuse to practice social distancing. We grieve for those unable to access basic goods because others are panic-buying unnecessarily. We're furious at those who are capitalizing on the pandemic with phone scams and denials of sick leave.
We grieve that we can't yet offer our services in the trenches of battle.
I'm prone to bad nightmares; this pandemic sometimes feels like one. Similar to my nightmares, I half-expect to wake up both disoriented and relieved that it all actually happened in my sleep — that it doesn't extend into reality. I'd hit snooze on my alarm, shake off the nightmare, and then get ready to arrive at school for my morning class on dyspnea — shortness of breath.
Unfortunately, this isn't a nightmare, and there is no snooze button.
Instead, I have to confront reality and respond in the most useful capacity at my disposal. As a medical student, that includes ensuring I learn all about dyspnea today, in anticipation of the future day I can use that knowledge to help.
What we must do now is commit diligently to our (virtual) learning, so we're prepared to take the baton when it's passed down to us.
Confronted with a life-altering pandemic, I've come to a conclusion: all that matters is preparing for the frontlines and for our service to humanity.