Feeling like the “wrong kind of doctor” (I have a doctorate in organization change), I initially felt helplessly inadequate in my response to the coronavirus pandemic. Thinking of all the family, friends, and colleagues I knew who were fighting in the front lines of medicine, I questioned my career choice. With the exponential increase in COVID-19 patients across the globe, what was I doing with my life?
Instead of consulting, teaching, and writing, shouldn’t I have been practicing? Thinking of the brave souls who practiced medicine, I wondered about my contribution. To be sure, for big chunks of my career I had used my biomedical engineering background and my doctoral studies to guide leaders in healthcare, but when I asked myself what would Mother Teresa be doing, I recalled my meeting the saint a month before her death. A life lesson emerged from that experience: “We can lead best by serving the needs of our community and by following the lead of those we serve.”
So my heart turned to those I knew in healthcare – at Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, UW Health, UCSF, SF General, and Stanford Health Care – and I found my own way of serving them: with compassionate and supportive listening. I recalled a review I had written a decade ago about Dr. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. That India Currents review, titled “Hippocrates Made Human,” centered on the following question from this empathetic novel: “Tell us, please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”
I realized that by being in dialogue with my family, friends, and colleagues, by sharing my words and listening to theirs, I could support those who were fighting the good war. Finding my voice on email one early morning, I checked in with all those I knew who were fighting the good fight for my own family. Later that week, my wife (Mangla) and I looked beyond our own circle of healthcare providers and sent varying versions of the following email to friends whose children were at the front line:
We’ve been thinking about you all and praying that all are keeping well.
Here’s a note that we’ve sent to the many clinicians who take care of our family
“Thank you for the outstanding care you always provide to our family. During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, I’d like to also thank you for heroically being of service to all of your patients. Please take care of yourself and your loved ones.”
We know that each of you has at least one family member or friend who has been similarly heroic. Of course, we are all so blessed (or at least we hope each of us is) to be taken care of by doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, and the countless others (public health experts, researchers, biomedical engineers, administrators, supply chain clerks, et al) who serve behind the scenes. A heartfelt thank you to all!
Friendship is truly a lovely word. And words are keepsakes, keeping us close in good times and distressing ones.
And here is a word from Sanskrit that is always much needed: karuna. Given that we can all use more compassion in our lives, you might find of interest this website highlighting compassionate acts: karunavirus.org.
In Friendship … Mangla and Raj
Some responses came immediately as if from next-door kin: “Thanks for sending this note, Papaji! Yes, [we] are staying healthy. I’m trying to see the positives. [When we] go on our daily walks, I can’t help but be reminded that Spring is happening all around us. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the birds are chirping louder every day, my indoor seedlings are just about ready to be planted outside, and the air is cleaner.”
Some emails read as if they were Western Union telegrams – surgical sentences and grammatical errors suggesting distracted medical battlefield urgency:
- “Thank you so much my friend … desperately needs this as it has been certainly overwhelming for all of us.”
- “Will catch up soon … knee deep into COVID-19 as I and in our command center this and next week.”
- “So thoughtful of you to reach out … much appreciated … more careful response to follow.”
- “Doing fellowship in Infectious disease at Stanford … warning … worst is yet to come … brace yourself.”
- “Thank you … I hope you and the family stay safe.”
- “In the front line now treating patients and attending on them … but praying and hoping for the best … work has doubled.”
- “Thank you for this thoughtful note … I’m doing well (on nights right now, delivering babies) and have been in good health.”
- “Coronavirus is causing a lot of stress for us … Stay safe and wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap for 20 seconds.”
- “Thanks … that’s very nice of you to say.”
- “Sorry for not responding sooner … keep waiting for a moment I can put some thought into my response … silly me.”
- “Thank you very much for the thoughts, the support, and your friendship … hope you and your family continue to all be healthy … hope isolation doesn’t keep you from the grand baby!”
- “Until calmer days…”
And then there were the responses from Dr. Megha and Dr. Pooja. In these letters from two sisters whom my wife and I had known since they were little girls in frocks, I could hear the distant thunder of war against an invisible enemy:
Dear Raj Uncle and Mangla Aunty,
Thank you so much for your very kind words and touching email, and for thinking of us during these uncertain times. This has truly been a humbling experience thus far and I can only pray that this is soon behind us with minimal loss….
Dear Raj Uncle and Mangla Aunty,
Thank you so much for reaching out to me.
That passage was really beautiful.
It made me feel hopeful about the future.
I am working in the ICU for a month and am grateful for the opportunity to learn from this pandemic and care for patients.
I am especially inspired by nurses and respiratory therapists, as they have the most contact with patients.
Their bravery, compassion, and selflessness inspire me every day.
Wishing you and your family all the best now and always!
Gentle reader, even if you are not a doctor or planning a career in the caring profession, as a consumer of medicine you may be wondering about that question from Cutting for Stone: “Tell us, please, what treatment, in an emergency, is administered by ear?” Perhaps we can all embrace this universal response — “words of comfort.”
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, a Change Management Consultant working with clients across the world, has written this for all of those in healthcare, including his nephew, Avinash, the first MD in the Oza Family.