Confessions of a Social Distancing Failure
A brutally honest first-person quarantine story from an anesthesiologist
I'm uncertain what finally tipped me into recklessness. Maybe it was the two-plus months of social isolation? Maybe it was seeing my sister for the first time, visibly pregnant? Maybe it was the weariness taking over, the doneness with it all?
As a physician exposed to aerosolizing procedures, I wear an N95 all day to protect myself, removing it exactly once with great care, so that I may guzzle a couple bottles of water and a snack. I sanitize excessively, wiping my pens, my pager, my stethoscope, my ID badge. And yet despite these extreme measures, I know each day I will return home to my two children who resumed day care attendance three weeks ago when we ran out of childcare alternatives.
I wave to one of my colleagues when we pick up and drop off in our masks; each of his children are in a class with mine. They immediately hug and begin playing, and I pause, reminded that he spends his days in the ER. I imagine he likewise knows I spend my days in operating rooms intubating and extubating, doing bronchoscopies and thorascopic procedures. One can practically see the microbes suspended in a cloud around us both.
We go to great links to protect ourselves, our patients, and our families, but it will likely take only one case at the daycare to spread the coronavirus to all of the children. It may have already happened. Though I continue my extreme measures, I am compromised.
So perhaps it was the maddening sense of futility? This weekend I indulged my social sweet tooth. I joined family and friends, and what began with mask wearing and good intentions, quickly devolved into hugs, laughter, and wine. The masks came off, and we never looked back. It was a joy to forget them entirely, for just a little while.
My muscles tense with the comments I’m certain this will invite. I feel the judgement in my bones already. But despite the stigma, this is a conversation worth exploring.
The above scene would have sent shudders through me a month ago. I would have called myself socially irresponsible and selfish, and maybe those things are correct. Yet the case incidence in my community remains low, despite relaxation of distancing restrictions, and I find my conservative self, for better or worse, unfurling. I’m tentatively peeking from a bomb shelter to survey the world after a massive air strike, and what I’m finding is that the destruction, at least in my area, is manageable. I’m well-aware of its devastation elsewhere. I’m well-aware there may yet be another strike, or a fall-out insidiously picking off those of us who emerge too soon.
But I needed the breath of unfiltered fresh air.
I may suffer consequences, and I accept this reality. At some point, we’ll all have to explore where our boundaries lie. I’m not willing to throw caution to the wind and go to a restaurant or a concert, but being with my family and friends was a concession I decided to make.
Today, back at work, I once again wore my N95 all day. I sanitized and protected to an extreme, but something has shifted. Today, for the first time, I don’t feel like I’m protecting myself; I feel I’m protecting my patients. From me.
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Dr. Hailey Amick is a wife, mother, and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee. When she's not chasing her three and five-year-old around, she's at her other (easier) job as an anesthesiologist. In October of 2018, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her world was turned upside down, and it was terrifying. During her year of treatment she pondered over the things in life that frighten us, the unknowns, the monsters that take on so many forms. Why do they exist? What can we do to fight them? Is it possible that they serve as a source of virtue in our lives? Her blog www.facingmonsters.com is a discussion of those questions. Visit her website to face those monsters together.