Owen Lee-Park is an emergency medicine resident doctor at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.
As I walk through the entrance of our busy emergency department, I see the familiar sight of the anxious and frustrated faces of patients in the packed waiting room. We exchange quick glances at each other, and so much emotion is conveyed merely through the eyes above our masks. I sit down at my computer, get a sign-out from the outgoing colleague, and do a quick, silent prayer — please give me strength, patience, compassion and humility as I speak to and care for my patients. I know that being here is among the worst and most anxiety-provoking times for many of my patients. For some others, it is a routine visit that we treat with a shabby, cold turkey sandwich and a couple hours of observation, because there is simply nowhere else for them to go or anyone else to speak to about their loneliness.
Lately, though, it’s been getting harder to ignore the voice inside of me that says, “I’m exhausted. I feel burned out.”
Last week, several of my colleagues tested positive for COVID. They were “triple vaccinated,” with two injections of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, as well as a booster shot that is now officially recommended by the CDC. Many U.S. states are also recording the highest single day count of new COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic, while holiday parties and plane tickets are also being canceled left and right. This, just as it began to feel as if things were beginning to go back to normalcy.
As for me, I had plans to visit my family for the holiday and lunch dates with my friends, but now with the new surge of cases, I will be joining others in responding to the call of duty at work for our colleagues who’ve fallen ill despite having done everything they were supposed to. Truly, the past two years of uncertainty and anxiety, with intermittent periods of hope, have been exhausting for all of us, including us health care workers.
There have been numerous peer reviewed studies that show the pandemic’s more subtle and insidious effects on our mental health. But I also palpate so much of this angst personally as I speak to my patients, who come to the ER for a multitude of reasons. As I listen to their stories in the cold emergency department room, it becomes so evident to me that we are all very, very tired and anxious. Of course, how could we not be? Another surge? Another round of cancellations? Not again! Will it ever end?
Although we still do not know much about the nature of the omicron variant (and likely other future variants), research done by some of the brightest minds of humanity has shown us that vaccination and getting boosters can reduce the risk of ourselves and our loved ones getting serious illnesses from COVID (i.e. death) by over tenfold. And the scientific and medical community is already developing treatments that could prevent serious cases of COVID-19, with some already showing promising results. If science can bring forth effective vaccination and treatment, it is possible that in the near future, we may finally achieve the elusive state of herd immunity, much like we do for annual influenza cases.
But as we patiently wait for the scientific breakthroughs, I believe it is so important for us to give ourselves the permission to be sad, frustrated and angry. We should acknowledge that this absolutely sucks, that we are all very tired, overwhelmed and sometimes hopeless — and that all of this is OK. Surely, this acceptance will not solve our problems, particularly for those who were already struggling to make ends meet or keep up with their numerous responsibilities for their loved ones. But in these divisive, vitriolic and isolating times, I hope this acknowledgment of our feelings could at least help us see the thread that connects all of us — that we are all trying to do our best and that, after two years, we are all exhausted.
I may not be your doctor, but I know your pain. And I love you, and I will pray for you. I hope you will do the same for us.