“Be safe,” Courtney said to me as I put my shoes on while sitting on the steps in the garage. She has been saying that to me more frequently the past few weeks. I nod and get in my car. As the rain starts falling during my drive to work, I think of her words. I pay attention to the road closely, even though there are barely any cars around me. I drive slowly, listening to the radio, I could not tell you which station or what show nor the subject, I only hear Courtney’s words.
Courtney was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 13th. I was sleeping after an overnight shift when she woke me up to tell me. She was crying and I started crying. In the following week we meet the breast surgeon and the plastic surgeon. The surgery was scheduled for April, so was the appointment with the oncologist. We were then a family living with cancer.
On March 9th, Ohio had its first case of Coronavirus. We were worried, but for now, our lives revolved around cancer, not a virus. I kept checking the pediatric rate of infection, it was low worldwide, so I felt somewhat reassured for my two boys, ages five and two years. Then the daily numbers started rising, clinics were being closed, surgeries were being cancelled. Now we were worried.
Every time Courtney’s phone rang, we held our breath: is it the surgeon cancelling the surgery? Fear became the dominant emotion. Courtney worked from home, having endless conference calls to switch her courses to online teaching, and figuring out how to conduct a laboratory session online. My five-year-old would ask me if I was going to the hospital to see Corona, my two-year-old just wanted to wrestle and pull my glasses off my face.
I parked in the physician parking lot, there were three cars in the lot, including mine. I sat in my car, wondering what lay beyond my car door. I was early, so I decided to meditate. “Focus on the breath,” the young lady’s voice on my meditation app said,” whenever you feel distracted, return to the breath.” I was distracted: am I breathing? Am I short of breath? I meditated for five minutes, it’s time.
I walk slowly through the parking lot and wait for the traffic signal to cross the street. Usually I would be surrounded by physicians, nurses, social workers and other people hurrying to work. I was alone, staring at the orange hand telling me to wait. I walk into the lobby and say “Good morning” to the security guard, he nods, with his surgical mask covering most of his face.
There are no patients in the emergency room. My colleagues say a hurried ‘goodbye,’ they throw their surgical masks away, scrub their hands vigorously with hand sanitizer and make a quick exit. Everyone is anxious, even though there are no patients, no one is talking, no one is looking at each other even, we’re all just waiting. The first patient flashes on the board, chief complaint: “fever, cough, respiratory distress.”
I go to the sink; I wash my hands while reciting the alphabet. I put on my yellow gown, my blue gloves and I tighten my CAPR around my head. I look at the airborne isolation sign and I take a deep breath of filtered air. “Be safe,” my wife says. I open the door and step in, “I’m Doctor Shihabuddin, how can I help you today.”