Editor’s note: This was written recently by Evan Shaw, an internal medicine physician at Research Hospital in Kansas City, about caring for dying COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit. Dr. Shaw, who graduated from Manhattan High in 1994, previously worked for five years in internal medicine at Mercy Regional Health Center, now called Ascension Via Christi Hospital, in Manhattan. He originally posted this on his Facebook page, addressed to the nurses who serve alongside him.
None of us that work in ICU are strangers to death. When you have cancer and you’re old and your organs fail, it’s time to go. We make them comfortable. We hug the family. We say things and do things that we hope make it easier. We touch people with our hands and our hearts before they go. We have a job that requires us to put up the tables and chairs of their lives and turn out the lights before the room is closed and the doors are locked. And so we do.
This is... so horribly different.
You can’t touch them. No one is with them at the end. They are literally burning up with 104-105 degree fevers as they go and you can’t stop it. There is no reassurance. There are no words. There are no sons or daughters to hug or touch or simply to say “I’m sorry” to. Even when you are in the room, ever so briefly, you are so completely covered that you look like an alien. Even if you manage a smiling face to try to help, no one sees it. You watch from behind a glass door as their kidneys shut down and their lungs are destroyed and they end. It’s almost like watching someone from another planet, you feel so far away. Or like you’re a mad scientist in a lab and these are your experiments that have failed. They die completely alone in the most inhumane ways.
I became an M.D. because I love science and I love people. I pride myself on being able to comfort the dying and those that love them.
And now I feel emasculated because our science doesn’t work and because I can’t comfort anyone. Not the patient, not the family. Not even my own wife, or least of all myself, as I know I have to try to sleep, to keep my system strong, but can’t help to wonder how I might feel, stuck behind glass, tended by people whose faces and smiles are hidden, knowing what may be coming, knowing we have no answer, no power to stop it.
I’m praying for all of you, all you RN’s who make so much less and yet are risking yourselves so much more often than I do, through prolonged contact that is vital and cannot be avoided. None of this is fair. None of it makes sense. All I can promise is that if I survive this year I will never, ever take a healthy life for granted again.
Thank you for listening. God be with us all.