“Emergency Care for America's Heroes”

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Humbled and Human

CPT Matthew Mischo, MD

I’ve been learning a lot about humility these past two months.

Humbled, as I walk out of a child’s room after talking to her anxious father. Yes, this could be the virus you’ve heard about on the news. No, I’m not going to test your daughter for it. Yes, I know they’re saying everyone should be tested, but there are only six swabs left in the entire hospital. I know you’re frustrated. I am, too. I know I should be able to do more. I can call the hospital down the road, if you want, but I expect they’re in the exact same situation. Strangely, I have time to do that, for once. 

Humbled, as I talk with a friend from med school. A resident in pediatrics in a city harder hit than us, pulled from his clinic last week to man an adult ICU. Volunteering because he’s young, he’s healthy, he’s single, and we both know of providers who’ve died from this already. He doesn’t wear a uniform, but he understands that he signed up for this every bit as much as I did, despite social media posts from some medical peers claiming the opposite. Because he took an oath when he graduated medical school—the same oath I did—and one that comes with just as much duty as the one I swore in front of an American flag. But just because he probably won’t get sick, doesn’t mean he isn’t at risk for damage. That much is obvious as he tells me how he watched another patient die, and I hear in his voice that it’s shaken him. A patient his same age, without medical problems, either. Part of the job we signed up for, again, but that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for him. 

Humbled, as I open the news on my phone, or check IHME predictions one more time. To see how a mindless string of protein a thousand times smaller than the width of a hair can bring a global society screeching to a halt. How it can force us, all together, to stop and realize just how very small we are. That despite our ability to reshape mountains and molecules, we are so, so very far from omnipotent. That the natural world isn’t cruel, or cold, or malicious. That it’s simply indifferent to the fate of the few billion organisms among its nearly-infinite, uncountable trillions who share the same inflated sense of self-importance that I do. And that feeling of powerlessness cuts me deep, especially for someone whose ego is perhaps a bit too large.

Humbled, as I walk into a breakroom crowded with donated food. With cards from people I’ve never met filled with kind words I feel I’ve done little to deserve. As I hear story after story of helpers across the world, both large and small. Of teenagers manufacturing masks on 3-D printers inside their garages. Of neighbors supporting neighbors they scarcely talked to half a year ago. Of simple thank you’s, and genuine gestures of affection that mean so much more when handshakes and hugs are forbidden. 

Viruses may be indifferent, but my species certainly is not. And that doesn’t erase all of the above. Not the anxiety a parent feels, or the helplessness of a healer who has no tools left to heal. It doesn’t negate the fears of a society facing trade offs it never imagined, or the uncomfortable weight of existential truths that we can’t ignore in a time like this. But I think it’s important, nonetheless. 

Sometimes when your job is to look for suffering, suffering is all you’re inclined to find. And at the risk of sounding horribly cliche, it’s easy to forget how beautiful this indifferent world is, and how genuinely good the people living on it can be. That kindness and compassion may not be features of the landscape, but that humans carry so much of both with us. And that, more than anything else, leaves me humbled.

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