Something Wicked This Way Comes

What your doctor is reading on

APRIL 03, 2020 — I was supposed to be at a conference in Las Vegas, attending the meeting of the National Consortium of Breast Centers. My spring, typically filled with travel to give lectures to both oncology colleagues and men and women with cancer, has been flipped on its head—it’s all COVID-19 now.

First there was the initial news from China, then the rapid rise of those infected in Italy and Spain, and soon enough Seattle and now New York City. COVID-19 appears to be everywhere; physical distancing is the norm and most businesses are closed.

I try to remain hopeful—I am an oncologist, after all. My entire professional career has been about providing hope. I need to believe that people can survive their cancers, that they are going to be okay. Even when they reach the terminal point in their illness, I need to believe that they won’t suffer—that they can die according to their own wishes, surrounded by their families, and on their own terms.

It’s been hard. We have had to shift our normal clinical practice. For example, I have always looked forward to connecting with patients in follow-up; to check in with them at 3 months, 6 months, and even 5 years after they were first diagnosed. It’s like seeing an old friend after a long time. These visits sustain me, reminding me that yes, people do survive cancer!

These have now been postponed. If we do hold them they are virtual. Today there is no physical contact: no shaking of hands, no hugs, no pecks on cheeks. It’s no longer allowed as we seek to curb the risk for infection. Now I speak to my patients behind a mask, hoping that my eyes can convey hope, or at least that they don’t betray the fear I have


And most of all there is the anxiety of infection. I work as a physician—I am not able to physically distance. I am essential and this means that I risk being infected.


Given that I am overall pretty healthy, it frankly terrifies me that I risk being an asymptomatic carrier. What if I infect my family? What if I am the reason that COVID-19 spreads in my town?

So, I implement yet more precautions. No more suits or nice clothes; I now wear scrubs, which I swore I’d never do. But it’s something I can control. Change into scrubs at work, change back into my clothes when I come home. Anything to reduce the risk of infectivity.

This is my life, even before the surge has occurred at my hospital in Rhode Island. I wonder what tomorrow will bring, what next week will look like. It’s only then that I realize: I really don’t care what happens to me. I just want everyone I love to make it.

Medscape Medical News

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