By Dr. Umer Farooq
The COVID-19 patient did not speak English, so we communicated using a translator phone. He taught me a few words and sentences so that I could ask simple questions to other patients who shared his native language. “I can’t breathe” were the last words that I could understand before he was intubated. I wondered if he ever imagined that his last words would be spoken to someone who did not speak his language. Did he imagine that he would be taken care of in his final days by someone born thousands of miles away?
Sadly, just one day after intubation, he went into cardiopulmonary arrest. Doing chest compressions, I tried my best to bring him back. My muscles tired and began to give way. I did not pause to catch a breath. His hospital course had already taken a rapid turn when he went into multi-organ failure. I heard someone near me say that his chances were meager, but I didn’t stop.
Despite my best efforts, the patient died. I came out of the room, drenched in sweat and feeling defeated. I heard a nurse say, “Nobody pronounced him. Can you come back?”
Next came the hardest part, calling his family. The same daughter, to whom I had given daily updates, answered the phone. After I informed her that her father was no more, she started crying. Again, I exerted great effort, but this time it was to hold back my tears. Finally, after the longest 2-minute pause, she said only one sentence in reply. “Thank you, doctor, for what you did for my father.”
A few months later, as I was shopping at a local cell phone store, a single question from the associate took me by surprise: “Do you work at Loyola-MacNeal hospital?” It was the man’s daughter. The one who had picked up the phone that sad day.
Due to COVID-19-related visitor restrictions, family members were unable to visit patients in the hospital. For this reason, daily telephone updates to loved ones had become an essential part of my daily routine. Having not been able to see my own family during the pandemic, I sometimes felt detached. It was difficult to know how much a patient’s family really connected to the voice giving them daily updates on the phone, if at all.
On this remarkable day, however, it was clear. This woman knew who I was, months later and from only the sound of my voice, proving to me for the first time how our small actions can have a large impact. I can imagine now, how difficult it would be if one of my family members got sick with COVID-19, and I was on the other side of the phone conversation, receiving an update on their condition from a physician in my country.
After she helped me find the product I had come for, we sat in her office and talked about her father, the patient I had cared for those few months ago. She tried hard to fight back tears and repeated several times that she believed doctors are an extension of God’s work. I mentally searched among “your father has finished the antibiotic course,” “his oxygen requirement is increasing,” “your father got intubated today,” “we had to start medications to support his blood pressure,” and similar words I must have said in the hopes of finding what part of our job fits her description.
Even though COVID-19 has created many hardships in the world around us, it has also provided opportunities to forge unexpected yet gratifying relationships in the delivery of healthcare. When families have to rely on a physician for information about their loved ones, strong connections are made in these weak moments. Practicing internal medicine can be challenging at times, but for me, it has also created some especially humbling, human experiences, and for this, I love it even more.