coronavirus chronicles #4

On a sense of impending doom, routines, and boredom: I think it took me the entirety of my spring break to acclimate, to some degree, to this new American life. I experienced spring break as a suffocating week of information and uncertainty. Every news alert and conversation with my father, a physician at the local hospital, brought home the reality of how bad things are going to get. Now, with the onset of new courses in school and returning to my space in the rural Upper Valley (honestly, a privilege to not be in a city), I feel calmer.

I drove back from my parents’parents’ home earlier this week. I am staying in the Upper Valley for the foreseeable future, continuing my self-isolation, as I had done since my finals a couple of weeks ago. My choice to be here is complicated, personal, and challenging — something I’ll keep in conversations with friends. I don’t know if I made the right choice, but I think it was the best one in light of factors unwritten here.

Routine: I now have a routine. By routine, I don’t mean a daily schedule or following a pattern of activities from a previous, more carefree life. I mean the basics: getting my school work done, meditating, cooking/cleaning, exercising, etc. I am trying to embrace these activities in whatever way they come, whenever as well. I am also trying to embrace quietness, through meditation and prayer, as it comes, to allow myself to be still, unbothered, or compelled by the silence around me. I think there are different kinds of silences, ones that bring calm and insidious ones that bring back uninvited thoughts and memories. How we live with silence changes in what form it comes.

Bordeom: Boredom is quicksand, and my escape strategy is “quarantine hobbies.” Having a list of activities to consider make it easy to entertain myself: baking, reading, making art (for my own enjoyment), exercising. My friend, another solo traveller, offered that independent traveling has been hugely beneficial to her in staving off boredom, in finding ways to keep herself busy, feel less isolated. I think this is true for me. Spending a year in solitude, in incessant uncertainty taught me lessons in resilience, loneliness, and of carpe diem. I am still learning from these memories. And I am thinking of the times I landed in a city, with no friends or contacts, with language barriers and nothing planned, and how I believed I could make the most of it. I remember how many people asked me to remember that although I lacked companionship, I was never truly alone. I’m only a call away. I am grateful for all of the kind souls who helped me navigate those experiences of peculiar uncertainty.

But also, I understand this uncertainty is different. This circumstance is far more complicated, mired by death, economic collapse, loss, and injustice. I am relying on previous experiences to show me how to cope. I am reminding myself that: We’re all experiencing different seasons, cycling between grief and resilience, at different times than others around us.

On gratitude: How lucky am I to be able to have only part of my life upended. My family is safe and sound. I have food on the table. My days are mostly predictable; I can continue my education via Zoom and the hard work of professors. I have friends to call, fresh air to breathe. I am able-bodied and healthy. I so greatly benefit from these and other privileges. Alhamdullilah.

I am trying to find gratitude without being comparative (e.g., other people don’t have food, etc.) I can’t feel authentically happy or grateful in thinking I’m happy because “my life is better than other people.” I hear that idea cited often in the context of global health, poverty, etc. It doesn’t work for me because it sounds like superiority, it feels like zero-sum. I must be happy because someone isn’t. Earlier this year, my medical school coach brought up the idea of gratitude to our small group. She’s a ER doctor, and I worry a lot about her. She’s also one of the kindest, compassionate people I know: a direct contradiction to the cool personality attributed to physicians in a similar position. She asked us to consider gratitude as a mindset, to love and appreciate what we have, and nothing more than that. We were supposed to return to that conversation, and I guess I wasn’t imagining to rediscover it this way.

I am deeply grateful for what I have: a safe home, family and friends, necessities, reliable internet, and so much more. But, at the same time, I am also frustrated, disheartened, and angry that so many people are now unemployed or impoverished, subject to brutal racial abuse, entrapped in situations of domestic violence, immobile in their ability to move (e.g., refugees, displaced, undocumented), and affected by so many other oppressions that are silenced, unheard, erased. We need short-term remedies, and we also need long-term solutions to the failings of our society. I need to figure out my role in this effort.

“The consequences of defunding public-health agencies, losing expertise, and stretching hospitals are no longer manifesting as angry opinion pieces, but as faltering lungs.”

Ed Yong, The Atlantic

On faith: If you haven’t yet figured it out, I am Muslim. Surprise! On Friday night, Muslims spend their evenings in halaqa, or gathering. Amid pandemic, we no longer sit on the floor on paper tarps, eating biryani and nihari, listening to our Imam remind us gently of a lesson, a story, a value that disappeared into our subconscious. On this past Friday night, our Imam, our community leader, asked us to recognize via an online sermon: Tribulations make you humble and take away of your arrogance. You can choose to complain or be patient. If you allow it, tribulation gives you the ability to forgive. (What is forgiveness in the time of corona?) He also asked us to be peaceful in accepting uncertainty: to believe in a power greater than ourselves. To understand that diseases are a natural part of life, and that there are lessons in pain that are difficult to carry, but never beyond what we can bear.

“If you hear that it (the plague) has broken out in a land, do not go to it; but if it breaks out in a land where you are present, do not go out escaping from it.” [Saḥiḥ Al-Bukhārī #5730, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim #2219] 

I know religion is not everyone’s favorite or welcomed topic. I know to many rational-thinkers that religion seems absurd, and to many also that Islam is even more so absurd (though I’d argue it’s also misunderstood). Regardless of belief, faith, or spirituality, I hope people find their ways of coping with uncertainty, tragedy, and tribulations. For me, I find solace in my faith.

On the professional obligations of medical students in COVID-19 Responses: I wrote a blog for the American Journal of Bioethics on what I think are the roles and responsibilities of medical students in this pandemic. Would love to hear your thoughts! You know where to find me.

Given the bleak outlook and parallels being drawn between the U.S. and Italy’s crises, I wonder of only when students will be called upon to help support our healthcare system. Each medical school, governing bodies, and its students need to have pre-emptive, transparent, and non-paternalistic discussions that will determine the emergency activation threshold at which students or other medical reserves will become involved in pandemic efforts. Such a debate must weigh the benefits and harms of setting the limit too high or low. Medical schools and their students need to prepare themselves for those contingency plans. At all stages of our career, we must ask ourselves how our actions honor our professional obligation to serve patients and our communities.

Thank you so much for reading!

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