The thin white line
Every day I wake up to the familiar hum of my alarm clock with the slow-rising sun shyly casting light through my blinds. And while my mind starts reorienting, reaching consciousness as I rub the sleep out of my eyes, some days I feel something amiss. Everything seems the same, yet there’s a hint of unreality in the air. It’s usually at this point that I startle myself upon remembering: I’m living through a pandemic. COVID-19 has crossed species, covertly traversed barriers and borders, transcended all strata of society, and unified all creeds and races through a vicious virulence humanity hasn’t seen since the Spanish flu of 1918.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19: Such a small, microscopic organism at the front and center of the world stage, and it has made us all secondary characters in our own lives. It has not only invaded the very air that we breathe, it has also saturated all media, and has somehow held us hostage in our own homes. It holds dominion over life and death while it beguiles under the simple guise of fever, cough, and myalgia.
But despite the fear, the uncertainties, and the isolation, as the last dregs of nighttime leave me, I get up and prepare for the day ahead as a physician frontliner. On duty days, I dress in my clean scrubs and sensible shoes with my face mask looped behind my ear. Walking the few meters to the hospital from my condo, I see what the oft-used phrase “new normal” really means. Quiet roads with a few people on the sidewalks with determined strides. Dimmed stores with dusty and skewed “CLOSED” signs. Daily infographics from the Department of Health flashed on TV screens and uploaded through social media giving updated statistics — showing a stubbornly up-trending graph with detection alarmingly and persistently over-taking the cure rate.
I start to recognize friends with just their eyes and the crook of their noses. I have become adept at estimating six feet on a flat surface, at a bend, or climbing up a stairs. I hear the word “hero” being used as a soothing balm for unnecessary medical casualties in lieu of instituting timely travel policies, improving hospital working conditions, and providing complete personal protective equipment (PPE). It took only a measly three months for an aerosolized virus to divide us and conquer all our preconceived notions of safety and security.
The patients come from all over Metro Manila and from differing stations in life, but they all arrive at the doors of the emergency room with the same familiar symptoms in varying combinations and severity, and with the same look of fear and faltering hope in their eyes. Most would have minor symptoms, but a few would already come in breathless, in distress, in imminent, impending respiratory failure. For a number, their last gasps before intubation would be the last sounds they would contribute to the cacophony of life.
I take hurried steps, bringing me closer to the hospital and to my patients. Not because I don’t fear contracting the very disease that has laid waste to the lives of thousands. I go to the hospital to don my PPE, go on rounds, and administer medical measures that would spell either wellness or sickness for my patients. Not because I am brave, but because I took a noble oath. I promised to be a keeper of health. During this pandemic, all physicians, alongside other essential healthcare workers — we are the thin white line separating life and death for our patients.
Yet every time I wake up and remember the pandemic with its horrors akin to nightmares unvanquished by waking, I still find myself grateful for another day. Because, in spite of the fear and the ever-present danger, my hope and faith in our fight is greater.
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Mae Gianelli F. Boco, M.D., 28, is a second year Internal Medicine resident at St. Luke’s Medical Center-Global City.
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