Isobel Rosenthal is a working as a primary provider for Covid-19 patients. Here’s how she’s getting by.
After four years in medical school and two years in graduate school, I’m finally an intern on my way to becoming a psychiatrist. But like so many doctors of other specialties, I’m on a detour, working as a primary provider for Covid-19 patients in the epicenter of the pandemic, at a New York City hospital.
The experience for every medical professional, from veteran physicians down to young interns and residents, has been overwhelming. I have never seen such a concentration of raw emotions from staff, patients, and the families of patients. In this sort of environment, it’s easy, even natural, to despair. In my days off, my family and friends call me often, asking about all the horrors I have seen and experienced. They’re well-intentioned calls, but just end up adding to my sense of dread, as I know I have to return to the wards the next day.
But I’ve also figured out an antidote to the stress: a gratitude list.
The idea came to me just before my first 12-hour shift in a seven-day stretch. Chatting with my co-resident, another budding psychiatrist, he told me that in an effort to avoid public transit, he planned to rollerblade from his apartment to the hospital. I began imagining him gliding down Madison Avenue in his scrubs — a sort of goofy, roving COVID superhero — and realized I was laughing to myself.
Sitting alone the night before that first shift, beginning a self-quarantine in my empty childhood apartment far from my family and friends, this laughter freed me. I felt immense gratitude for that moment of humor. It reminded me of a story my mom used to tell me when I was a little girl — the story of a very sick woman, lying on her deathbed, who decided to watch a comedy movie daily to brighten her final weeks. Eventually, the story goes, she wound up curing herself through laughter. It’s a story that I’ve often returned to in times of fear and stress.
I made a pact with myself right then and there to look for the humor, or for the good news — for something, anything, to be grateful for — every day of my shift.
One day it was the surprise birthday celebration that our attending held for my senior resident, who had expected the day to go unnoticed by our team. Other days I was struck by unexpected moments of generosity from the community, like when I left work to find half a dozen fire trucks parked outside and dozens of firemen clapping for everyone leaving the hospital. I felt a stir of New-York-specific emotion as I remembered clapping for them back in 2001, visiting firehouses as a child. It took me back to 9/11, a day on which my family had waited for several terrifying hours to hear from my father as he walked up from Wall Street to our apartment uptown without cell service.
The greatest sense of gratitude came when we discharged patients to their homes. It’s so difficult seeing patients gasping for oxygen, having something they’d always taken for granted become a punishing physical trial. My team had been clapping for patients as we discharged them, and we soon had an idea for something more we could do. After we finished rounding, I ran up to the administrative assistant at the front of the unit and asked if we could play music when patients were discharged. He explained to me how we could page music from our phones into the units. We began brainstorming about songs that would give patients hope when they heard one of their newly-recovered neighbors leaving for home. I sent a text to my family and friends, asking for ideas — and suggestions immediately poured in.
From that moment on, as we discharged patients, we began blasting tunes, from “Eye of the Tiger” to “New York, New York” to “Here Comes the Sun.” And when I get home at night exhausted, ripping my clothes off in my hallway so I can run to a hot shower to disinfect myself, I play this music in the background — theme songs to my strange new pandemic life.
At night, alone in my childhood apartment that my mother has evacuated — and FaceTiming with my boyfriend across the park, who I cannot touch — I try to focus on these moments of gratitude before I go to bed, so that I can wake up and return to what have been the defining weeks of my young professional life.
Most of all, I feel gratitude for the kindness of my colleagues — bringing chocolate bars for each other, and talking others through their tears after a patient codes, unable to reach out and hold them. As I wake up, push my finger into a small machine to test my oxygen saturation, and stick a thermometer down my throat, hoping that I am healthy, I try to think of these moments and focus momentarily on gratitude, so that I can get back in there and do my job.
This originally appeared on Medium.com