I woke up early this morning before the kids, as usual, made a cup of coffee and began my morning routine. These days, rather than putting on my shoes and heading out the front door for a run, I start by checking the news and email for critical information that may have occurred overnight. The run has to wait until I’m sure it’s still safe to even be out of my house on the street.
It has been almost a month of social lock down secondary to the coronavirus pandemic. My days are not the same anymore. No one’s are. An invisible enemy has effectively crippled the entire human race……short of Antarctica and those currently on the space station. Today, like everyday since this began, I have to figure out what the most important things to address today should be. Is there enough food in the house to feed the kids or do I need to make a scary trip to the grocery? How am I going to home school three kids and get any other work done? What can I do to help my patients? How can I make a difference? How will I pay my employees and landlord, when I am closed? My job of taking care of people’s health has been determined to be “non-essential”, as have so many others. The Lexus dealership can have customers test drive and buy cars. The liquor store is open for people to walk in a buy whiskey. But a doctor cannot take care of patients health in person, unless they are on the verge of death? I am, however, not insensitive to the horrible potential of this virus. My own parents became infected with it and I was not sure if my father would survive.
Both my father and stepmother, tested positive for COVID-19 in Louisiana and became severely ill. They are both 82 years old. Not many nights ago, I was concerned my father might not make it through the night. He seemed to be making a turn in the wrong direction. Lower oxygen saturation numbers, starting to have some difficulty breathing and mental status changes. Not good signs. Luckily, he did make it through that night. My step mother is recovering quicker and became less sick than my father. Thankfully, their frail, aged bodies fought hard enough to keep them out of the hospital. After approximately three weeks of severe illness, they both seem to be beginning the very slow, recovery phase.
I felt helpless throughout the worst of it. Treatments and procedures I felt would be helpful for their fight, were unavailable to them. I could not figure out a way to get to them from Texas and administer what I had in mind. My fear was I would risk infection myself, putting the rest of my loved ones and community at risk. I couldn’t even get my hands on several of the needed supplies I had in mind to help them quick enough anyway. Feeling useless to help them, I had to let go of the need to intervene and let their local doctors be in control. They have done an excellent job and didn’t seem to need me after all. The instinct to help medically in a time when so many are suffering, is hard to suppress. My parents are at the top of that list. My desire to help people be healthy is why I became a doctor in the first place. I am stuck at home, restricted from helping anyone in the traditional way, at least. My frustrations continue.
This virus is cruel. My parents have to take care of themselves, alone, because no one can enter the house to help them. At least they have each other. At least we live in a time of easy video communication, so there is some ability to connect socially. At least we have grocery and pharmacy delivery services to help them with essential food and supplies. At least their doctors can video conference with them. At least two of their children are doctors who can keep a remote eye on them. So many things to be grateful for. Why am I not embracing gratitude and feeling thankful for the blessings I am so clearly aware of?
My lack of gratitude and continued frustration is not without company. Most I know are scared, frustrated, lonely, angry, bored or depressed. Most of my contemporaries have only lived during times that have never had to truly know suffering. We have more than we need. We consume more than any other generation. We have never had a food shortage. We have never had to ration supplies. We have never been without. I realize my anger and frustration is worsened because I have never truly known real hardship. I’ve never had to truly struggle to survive.
We are being asked (not told under threat of gun) to stay home with our families, not to go to work unless we are an “essential” employee, wear a mask when we go out of the house and wash our hands, while the world figures out this pandemic. Wow, I’m feeling pretty ashamed and wimpy for even complaining. Yes many, myself included, are struggling with the economic implications of this scenario; and yes many, my own parents included, are becoming very ill. Too many of those people are dying. These are enormously important and terrifying tragedies.
For most people, facing the potential of physical suffering and mortality is terrifying; whether it is their own or of someone they love. Economic struggle and risk of financial devastation is equally as difficult to process emotionally. Putting the two together must seem almost insurmountable to most. In addition, we all have to learn to reinvent ourselves, work from home and learn new skills and technology. These are frightening battles to face, requiring strength, courage, wisdom, grace, self discipline and spirituality, all at the same time.
Joy is not known without experiencing great sorrow and sorrow cannot be understood without knowing the ecstasy of true joy. A life lived on the gentle swing of the pendulum is a life not fully experienced. The highs and the lows are what opens the mind and soul to the spiritual nature of our existence. It is what creates the drive and fire within our deepest depths to pursue something beyond what we already know. It is what feeds the ever dynamic force of strength and courage within us to forge ahead and make choices that may otherwise be set aside and ignored; leading to more nothingness, pain, sadness and loneliness.
It takes courage to act upon the wisdom within. Wisdom is easier to gain than courage. Courage is the most difficult quality to attain. As it should be. Courage equals power. Courage without wisdom, leads to destruction and death. Courage with wisdom, leads to growth and prosperity. Courage with wisdom, guided by spirituality, leads to true happiness and freedom.
The happiness and freedom, obtained through a degree of surrender or acceptance of something greater than us, requires a significant amount of self discipline. It is difficult to police yourself without acknowledging a spiritual component to our lives. Without that acknowledgement, our actions would only matter on a very superficial level. Honoring of this spiritual component is what leads us on a path to enlightenment. By honor, I mean we must not only take care of the gifts we have been blessed with, but nurture them as well.
These gifts are our bodies (both physical and mental, our families (children, parents, grandparents and siblings), the rare love we find in a life partner, the earth and our communities. These are the things that truly matter. Distractions of things inconsequential in essence are everywhere. Possessions, social status, how we are perceived, how we look, our own unimportant inner monologue……these are the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. Our innocence lost as we grow from children to knowing adults. Temptations of frivolous things rather than what matters most, is what poisons us. It is what holds us back emotionally and spiritually. No possession, amount of money or social status means anything without healthy mind, body and spirit.
We have all had to endure many frightening difficulties during this coronavirus pandemic…..personal or family illness, death of loved ones, economic hardship and social isolation. What has been remarkable to me, is the overwhelming need, above almost everything else, for continued social connection with other human beings……….whether a friend, family member or lover. One lesson this pandemic has taught me and I hope others as well, is the importance of the spiritual connection of love with another human being. I hope we all continue to nurture the connections we have with our loved ones once we emerge from the other side of this global crisis. There is always brighter side to most situations. Hopefully we won’t forget the lessons learned, while we work to overcome the challenges facing us today.
Stay happy, healthy and connected!
Alexandra Runnels, MD