This isn’t the post I have been trying to write. Here there is no research, no fact checking. I realize now why it has been taking me so long to finish that one.
I am anxious as hell.
For those of you who know me well and this is not a revelation, I’ll thank you to keep your “well, duh,” under your breath – behind a mask optional.
I am not anxious about the coronavirus. I earned my master’s in public health just this past year from johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a certificate in Quality Improvement, Patient Safety, and Outcomes Research. That certificate won out narrowly to one in epidemiology or statistics, two other public health realms near and dear to my heart. I feel I have a pretty solid grasp on the behavior of the virus, the steps to mitigate the spread, and the danger we are in.
I am not anxious about getting the virus. I am a relatively healthy 33 year old; I have high blood pressure, but it’s well controlled on medication. I was recently pregnant and my daughter is exclusively on breastmilk, but there is no indication that this puts either me or my daughter at risk. I have a decent immune system, honed by nearly ten years in emergency medical services, dealing with some level of exposure to whatever is going around. I am vaccinated accordingly, I receive the annual flu shot, and I wash my damn hands.
While I am increasingly worried about Hawthorne contracting the virus, that is not the source of my current gripping anxiety. Hawthorne has poorly controlled asthma, and has for years. Their immune system takes a beating, often. Whenever we are sick together, their symptoms at least twice as long as I do, and the asthma exacerbations continue into weeks. We have sort of made our peace with the fact that Hawthorne will likely come down with it, and we have made preparations for how to handle things if and when they become significantly ill. They have been tested for the coronavirus and are currently quarantined in our home; we have divvied up the silverware and towels, we are following the guidelines as close as we can while not leaving me with all of the parenting, cleaning, chores, and my own work.
I’ve been up since 4:30 on a day where I do not have to go to the office. Lucy was up every hour last night; it’s strange to think that something that I’m eating is disagreeing with her tiny tummy so much. I couldn’t sleep any longer, couldn’t try. My mind has been racing, my eye twitching. Lucy learned to screech this weekend, and practices every chance she gets, testing it out with every mood. It’s adorable to see her smile, all gums and joy, and then jarring to hear her hellshriek with the same smile. I’m not anxious about the impending couple weeks at home with her on my knee, coffee at my elbow, and data on my screens.
I am anxious because right now, with seemingly inevitable quarantine (which I agree with!), I am about to lose the hard-won routine and structure I have developed since returning to work after maternity leave. Self-isolating or quarantining leaves a lot of wide open days; Lucy is too young to have lesson plans, and I’ve never worked from home for multiple days in a row. I feel like I have just completed my reentry into work life, crash landing and stumbling out, dazed by the sudden atmospheric shift. I have made it over the first hurdles of balancing work and life with a new baby at home, the first days of not knowing quickly how to proceed when I don’t have childcare, the first extended hours of feeling like a vital and visceral part of me is missing.
Years ago, Hawthorne helped me realize that one of my coping mechanisms for stress and lack of structure coalesces into overworking myself. Maybe I start spending long hours at work, or banging away at work projects off the clock. Often it means I start looking around the house and the world and everything in between, making lists upon color-coded lists of projects to do. What is coming to surface right now is the drive to help. I feel useless, helpless, here at home when I know how hard my colleagues are working. It doesn’t seem to matter, internally, that I will be back at the office soon and able to jump back in the trenches with them and support. I understand how hard it is to believe that the best thing that I and millions of others can do is simply #staythefuckhome. I’m fighting the urge now to not be involved in every community initiative, moderate every Googledoc, deliver every meal, and write to every isolated senior.
Part of the reason I never questioned becoming a doctor when I was growing up was I felt that doctors were, above and beyond, helpers. They were able to take care of people, to fix things, to make things better. Watching some of the doctors my father interacted with when diagnosed with ALS scuffed my rose-colored glasses, so long trained on the medical field. I remember my anger at his first neurologist, a jaded man with wire-rimmed glasses on a straight nose and zero compassion. Even at 15, I felt nostalgic for a time I had never known, when doctors visited the homes of their patients and occasionally accepted bread and unlabeled jams as payment. I had watched Patch Adams too many times, I guess. If I was going to be a doctor, I was going to be a doctor who cared.
Jumping headfirst into emergency services felt natural; there, I was helping people, I could see that every day. I did fall into the EMS culture (another story, another day), but mostly, I was able to remember what I walked away with from my original EMT class. When people called 911, they were doing so for a reason. They needed help. People have been taught for decades now that when there is an emergency, you dial 911. No one has done a good job at defining what an emergency is on a wide scale, so the term has become completely subjective to folks outside of the healthcare fields. I don’t get to define what someone else’s emergency is. Maybe it’s loneliness. Maybe it is running out of a medication and not knowing what to do, or maybe it’s a dead cat; whatever it was, there was a reason.
There were, undoubtedly, many more frustrating calls than there were true medical emergencies. It wasn’t prestigious; benefits were practically nonexistent, and the pay was terrible. Then the Fight for 15 began, it became a contentious point in EMS: most people entering the field wouldn’t see a payrate like that for years, even though they are literally the first line of response in life-threatening situations. We weren’t in it for the money; some may have been for the glory, I suppose. It took a lot of work sometimes to remind myself that, as EMS professionals, were being given an honor by the public we served; there were times it took substantial effort to remember that we were being not only called, but invited in to people’s emergencies, their worst moments. We were the ones who showed up in the times when people were most vulnerable. We were the helpers.
I let my card lapse with absolutely no regrets. Since then I have happily remained in a non-clinical role. The decisions I have are not life and death; if I make a mistake, it needs to be fixed, but no soul hangs in the balance. This experience, sitting home while the virus creeps over the land, has made me realize I don’t know how to not be a helper. I know there are thousands upon thousands out there like me, feeling stymied, even as we are doing the best possible thing – staying home. Somehow I will have to find more of an actionable way to help; I just don’t know what yet.