“You look tired.”
I laugh and make a flippant remark about not wearing makeup. There really is not a better response to that comment.
But there is a better response. The truth is, I have never felt this tired. Not “will resolve with rest” kind of tired; the kind of tired that comes with the overwhelming dread that you will always feel this way. This is the bone-crushing weariness of a staircase with no landing, a mountain with no peak, a race with no finish line.
As an emergency physician, I am supposed to have answers. All I have is what I have already given: everything, willingly and without reserve. But my well is empty and they still need more. It’s not enough. I’m not enough.
The truth is, it was nice for a while when frontline healthcare workers were being lauded for their efforts. When people would line up and clap, and there was a brief acknowledgment of how hard we work to save lives. But it got old. The overwhelming need to return to business as usual has overshadowed the fact that we still exist with anchors hanging from our necks, tethering us to the reality that the problem did not disappear just because it is being ignored by many. I still have to go to work every day; and I still have to come home to an empty house, where I am trapped by the ghosts of patients past and future.
The truth is, I don’t sleep anymore. The fatigue I feel is paradoxical, inducing an insomnia that is such a constant companion its presence is almost tangible. I go to bed at night but I can’t get my brain to stop its endless chatter. You could have done more, they whisper to me, the demons who subsist on my feelings of helplessness. They used to cower before me, but now like vines they grow, enveloping my soul in an asphyxiating embrace. In the past I was better at weeding the garden; now it seems it is overrun, and no amount of tending can clear it.
The truth is, on behalf of all of my colleagues on the frontlines, I need you to know this: we are exhausted. We have been running on empty for too long. But we are gearing up for the final battle. It can often feel as if we are lost in a tunnel with no end, with the virus still raging around the world. But we know that the darkest hour is before the dawn; how fitting that this week marks the arrival of the long-awaited vaccine. This is my Hanukkah miracle; the possibility that against such insurmountable odds, we can be victorious. The knowledge that there is not enough fuel, yet still the light will last.
I am an emergency physician in the middle of a global pandemic. I’d like to say that I am invincible.
The truth is, I’m only human.
Imperfect, inadequate, deficient, fallible.
And yet, still hopeful.