Dr. Meredith Garvin ’06, an emergency medicine resident physician at Kent Hospital in Rhode Island, contributed this essay to the spring/summer 2020 Clark magazine.
I saw my first death from COVID-19 tonight. I think. Department of Health tests are pending. I stood helplessly outside the isolation room while my colleagues put in the most valiant, yet futile, effort to resuscitate him. His wife stood at the door and clung to the glass while CPR continued. She couldn’t even hold his hand. We did everything modern medicine has to offer to save this man. He walked into the ER just eight hours prior to his cardiac arrest. I’m at a total loss as to what just happened and how to fix it.
I had an elderly patient commit suicide tonight because he thought he might have coronavirus. He was mentally ill his whole life. Coronavirus was what pushed him over the edge. He hanged himself. I had to tell his family out in the parking lot that their loved one was dead — in the rain, wearing a mask that became soaked because they were too afraid to come into the hospital. They couldn’t even see my entire face. I hope they could hear the despair in my voice, see the tears in my eyes, and understand how much I care.
I never talk about the really difficult stuff that keeps me awake at night. The everyday patients between the heart-stopping trauma and the bizarre psych stories that enter my mind when I hit the pause button. Because I think people don’t really want to hear that part. They probably think, Hey, you signed up for this, you know? And they’re right. It truly is my privilege to care for people at their most vulnerable moments in life. That’s the reason I get up every day. It’s what motivates me to endure the tough stuff. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about.
This has been the worst week of my entire residency. Last night, I had a patient with a devastating, spontaneous brain bleed. She was on Coumadin, a blood thinner. Just spontaneous. It happens, I know. She was elderly — 94 years old. Of all the tragedies in this job, this particular one is actually not that sad. If I were to be happy and relatively healthy at age 94 and one day just drop dead, I think that’s probably the best way to go. Minimal suffering. Negligible pain. Beautiful, actually.
The problem is, when I called her daughter to tell her that her mom had less than a few hours to live, she refused to come to the hospital because she was afraid of coronavirus. She had health problems of her own and was scared to come in. The only reason the woman didn’t die totally alone was because a wonderful nurse sat with her and held her hand during her last breaths. A month ago, I never could have imagined this scenario. Never would have thought patients would be dying alone, without their loved ones nearby and only hospital staff to comfort them. Now that is a tragedy.
This virus could break us. It could break me. Even as I ask myself, How will I do this? I already know the answer. It’s there, in the back of my mind, deep in my heart. The answer is that it doesn’t matter how. It only matters that you will.