ESSENTIAL (By Audrey Shafer)
I am an essential worker. I just didn’t realize how essential I was, and never would have described myself that way, until the coronavirus pandemic. Millions cannot go to work due to shelter-at-home rules, but I have to: I’m an anesthesiologist. As I pass through the checkpoint to enter the hospital with other essential workers, I am reminded of what my single-parent mother instilled in my sister and me when we were little. While we sat in the dark, unable to pay the electricity bill, she said: “If you don’t want to live like this, get an education.”
We were never homeless or hungry, but the apartment was also not well maintained, with holes in the plaster, and bars on the back windows after the woman who lived on the floor below us was raped. My mother never complained to the landlord – she taught us “Never ask for help, the world is not here to help you.” If I didn’t have enough money for a packet of bus tokens, I was not to ask anyone for a handout. At a young age, I stuffed envelopes and babysat to earn money.
On the other hand, I had an unbelievably rich childhood – my mother was a costume designer and I saw
The Misanthrope and Endgame from the wings of the theater during dress rehearsals. I also loved the library. Even though I was afraid of librarians, the library was a safe place to go after school, and safety, besides a livable wage, was another lesson drilled into me. At home, my sister and I played a game with our library books, placing them along the floor and pretending that if you stepped off them, you sank into a watery abyss. But we knew, or at least we believed, the abyss wasn’t real.
When my mom said get an education, I listened. I went to an outstanding public high school – a magnet school that drew the brightest kids from all over Philadelphia. I attended college on full financial aid and majored in biochemistry. I planned to get a Ph.D. but during a summer work-study job, I met a post-doc – someone who already had achieved what I was convinced was the pinnacle of education. He told me he didn’t have a job the next year. This blew my mind. In that moment, I knew I needed to seek a new direction, something where I could always have a job.
Later that year, I had an epiphany while walking outside my dorm at a site rumored to be a film location for Love (‘means never having to say you’re sorry’) Story. Everyone gets sick, even Ali MacGraw’s character. If I became a physician, I’d always have a job. Eureka! Of course, in medical school interviews, I couldn’t come clean about my reasons. As much as I loved science, I knew I had chosen this path because I felt I would always be employed.
Yet, at medical school, something changed. Love happened in an unlikely setting. I felt strangely fatigued during my anesthesiology elective, but enjoyed the people and culture of this hidden part of medicine. Delirious and febrile from mononucleosis-induced hepatitis, which I did not initially know I had, I fell deeply in love with the quirky, fulfilling specialty of anesthesiology.
Fast forward through decades of academic anesthesiology practice – and, despite risks to mental health from stress and the myriad ways in which a minor disability could render the anesthesiologist useless, I had (you’d be proud, mom!) a safe and secure job every day of my life. But the job and its safety have changed.
Donning enhanced personal protective equipment, I check the barriers protecting me as an anesthesiologist during and after the airway procedures I will perform - procedures which make the virus even more contagious. I mouth breathe, pant really, in my N95 mask and hood, and, encumbered by impermeable layers and double gloves, move my limbs slowly as if I was in a phony moon landing scenario. I loudly ask the nurse to leave the room; sometimes I have to shout to be heard by the respiratory therapist. I look down at my frightened or too-far-gone-to-be-frightened patient. I’m the last person they will see before I push sedatives and place a plastic tube between their vocal cords. “I’m giving you medicine to make you very sleepy,” I say. “Medicine to put in a breathing tube to help you breathe. We will take good care of you.” It sounds harsh because I have to speak so loudly.
I understand, retrospectively, I was an essential worker through HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS and Ebola. But because of where I live, my limited exposure, and how these diseases are transmitted, I never felt the fear that is my steady companion now.
There is a longstanding analogy involving airline pilots and anesthesiologists, which compares take-off, flight, and landing to stages of an anesthetic. There are benefits to the analogy – it’s why simulation and communication training, developed for pilots, is now standard in anesthesiology education. There is a big difference, though: if the plane goes down, the pilot dies too; but if the anesthetic goes awry, only the patient dies.
As another overhead code call to the emergency room blares, and I, on the COVID airway team, grab equipment we pack in wheeled suitcases, respond to texts from team members, and don my N95 and eye protection before hitting the ER – the rest of the equipment will need to be donned and checked outside the patient bay – I realize, almost cellularly, that things are different now. With COVID-19, I could die. Or I could cause my loved ones to die if I bring the virus home. It would be like a slow but inevitable plane crash.
A younger colleague (and now they are all younger) came up to me one pandemic day. He said his heart rate was 130 but he otherwise felt fine. His temperature, heart rhythm, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure were fine. I told him, “It’s okay, go home, drink some water and relax. I’ll do your case.” He went home and his heart rate normalized. It was anxiety, not virus. This level of anxiety would have never happened to him pre-COVID. It’s not just the virus that threatens all of us, it’s also the fear.
Until now, I hadn’t truly thought about the danger of being an essential worker. But my mom equipped me to deal with enormous stress. Taught me I was loved. And maybe, in watching her go it alone for so many years, taught me to live a life different than hers. She taught me to be a lifelong learner, and what I learned from my colleague, to seek help from others, is one of the most valuable lessons of my life. It’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to tell the teacher selling bus tokens you don’t have enough money.
What I learned in the pandemic is this: we are all in this together. We are all needed. None of us is alone in this world. And asking for help, especially if you are an essential worker, is, ultimately, the essential thing to do.
Audrey Shafer, MD, is a Stanford Professor of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain medicine, the Director of the Medicine and the Muse program and the Co-Director of the Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration. She is an anesthesiologist at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.