I can only see your eyes. You can only see my eyes. I try to hear your voice over the hum of the makeshift respiratory isolation room you are in. You try to hear my words through my mask. Together we make quite the picture. I am in a gown, gloves, mask, goggles, and hair covering. You lay in your gown with your mask on, oxygen blowing into your nose. I touch you with my gloved hand and introduce myself. I then step back as you struggle to answer me between quick shallow breaths. I want to give you the appearance that I am present with you, near you, connecting with you, while in my head I remember to touch you as little as required and stay as far away as possible.
In my many years of practicing nursing I never thought I would see this day. Today I, and others in healthcare, try to distance ourselves as far as we can from you. We don’t want to touch you. We don’t want to hear you talk without a mask. What you and I struggle to understand is that this is a necessity and a cruelty. If I draw near and comfort you, spend more than a few seconds in the room, hold your hand has you cough, gasp, or vomit, I put myself, my family, and my other patients at risk. If I stand in the door and shout at you as you struggle to breath, struggle to hear me, I make you feel isolated, disconnected, and possibly uncared for.
What I need you to know is that I hate this. This is not how I was trained or who I ever wanted to be. As I watch you through the window of the closed door a piece of my heart, my soul, is left behind in that room with you. You won’t see it, hear it, or feel it, but it’s there. We are both going to come out of this with scars and I can only hope that you live to feel and see them. I feel mine every night as I fade into sleep. You are one of my first thoughts when I rise. I ask myself if you survived the night, did you improve while I slumbered?
I’m not at work today but I can’t escape COVID-19, just like you can’t. I leave my house to gather bare necessities for the week and it’s almost more than I can bear. I see your neighbors, my neighbors, our friends, socializing as if COVID-19 was a myth. Don’t they know you’re in the hospital fighting for your life? Don’t they care that they may have been the one to make you sick? I care, and it ignites an anger in me that I struggle to not let consume me. I see their faces smiling, laughing, freely talking unmasked, and I wonder when I’ll only see their eyes. When will they end up where you are, only able to see my eyes, craving for human touch and struggling to breath?
You’re still in the hospital, so you don’t see the uproar that wearing a mask has caused. If you could only read the Facebook posts, walk in the grocery store, or watch the news. I know if you saw what I saw when I’m not at work you would feel similar to what I feel. The tears of frustration and anger at society’s self-centeredness. The disgust that someone would use a simple infection prevention technique to make a political statement. I once had a hope for our country, that we would choose others above ourselves, that we would endure a minor inconvenience for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
Each day I wake up with the hope that today will be the day. Today will be the day that you are remembered, you are honored, and your struggle to live is respected by someone wearing a mask. As another day slips by, I feel we’re losing ground in our fight against COVID-19. I head to bed weary of people’s choice of I over you or us. I wish the only thing I could see were other people’s eyes, for then I’d know they would take this seriously.
April Hutto is a hospitalist NP at Prisma Health Midlands Richland in Columbia, South Carolina.