Reflections from a medical student, mother and author in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic
There is a palpable anxiety felt in the air. It’s not just in hospitals and felt by health care workers, it’s a sense of impending doom that permeates through everyday life as we wait for the tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic to hit our shores. In situations of life or death, we are faced with a flight or fight instinct, but currently I am suffering a frozen state. I feel as if I am a deer in headlights, frozen with anticipation, waiting for the war to come and it’s exhausting.
Staying at home is by no means a hard sacrifice, yet the feelings evoked brings out a rollercoaster of emotions. I watch my colleagues who have already graduated, going to work and making sacrifices so that we can stay safely at home, and I can’t help but feel guilty. Guilty for not doing enough, studying enough, being enough. This guilt is also laden with a small voice of relief, I am only human. I have a young child and elderly parents and I don’t want my job to be the cause of any sickness. This small voice of relief is then snubbed out by a sense of responsibility to do something and be of service. And so, the vicious cycle continues. I am doing nothing, yet I feel everything.
I began the self-isolation period with a sense of purpose, I was going to use this time to study harder, finish my final year medical project, work on a few side projects and spend more time with my daughter. If Shakespeare could write King Lear during the quarantine period of the Black Plague, surely, I could get on with my medical studies and be a more attentive mother. Social media is filled with posts about people using this time to cook, declutter, study, and work on their start-up companies. I felt obliged to do the same. But as the days carried on, and the weeks passed by, the early stages of energetic enthusiasm petered away. I found myself tired, drained and losing my spark for life. I blamed myself for being lazy, I just needed to have a routine and schedule myself some activities. I tried fitting more into the schedule in hopes to gain more happiness. But none of this worked.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed one evening, crying softly as I put the finishing touches on my university report. I have spent the day tending to my daughter, finishing deadlines and even though I had not left the house, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I finally said enough. I had to let go of this sense of urgency to do more. I realised I didn’t have to be productive all the time, because we in the midst of a medical emergency. It’s okay not to write the next great work of fiction or be the best medical student, it’s okay to just exist. In accepting this, my body gave a big sigh of relief. I could finally accept that in these uncertain times, we need to treat ourselves with grace. We need to put on our oxygen masks first before we can attend to others. In looking after our own mental health, we can be better caregivers, caretakers and doctors.
As a former aerospace engineer, we regularly scheduled in downtime for our aircraft, downtime was just as important as air time, because it allowed for maintenance, restoration and repair of the aircraft. As humans, we have metrics of success based on outputs, grades, key performance indicators, however, we don’t have a measurement for our own downtime. In times of crisis, it’s just as important to make time for rest as it is for work. This is a gentle reminder to myself and my colleagues, it’s okay not to be productive. It’s okay to give yourself some grace. Mary Oliver writes “It’s a serious thing, just to be alive, on this fresh morning, in this broken world”, it’s a reminder to all of us that sometimes existing is enough.