Finding Our Humanity
For the first time in recent memory, I was in tears listening to a patient share her story of grief. Sad news comes with being a clinician. Although I strive to remain professional yet compassionate, present but emotionally receptive, the heartache that ensued from this story spurred me to relay the interaction. It is one we all need to contemplate.
It had been a few weeks since this patient’s last visit. I inquired about the health of her father as it was a significant life stress for her. She had previously confided that his health was declining over the last several months due to heart failure. Tears flowed freely with her response that her father had recently passed away, yet it was part grief and part rage that I heard in her voice.
Clinicians are prepared (to a greater or lesser degree) to sympathize with grief; it is a universal human experience. This was different. As she began to share her story, I started to understand the extent of the rage that intertwined with grief. Due to the limits of quarantine imposed by the care home in the wake of COVID-19, visits from family were not permitted during what became the last few months of his life.
That alone is a terrible hardship to bear. To have decades of history with a beautiful human being, one that was a guiding force from childhood into adulthood, and not have the chance to offer comfort or realize closure through the transition would be painful. To be only miles away yet not able to offer a compassionate touch seems unfathomable.
This is not what broke me. It was the fact that in the last few weeks of this man’s life, every interaction with another human being was met with a gown, face mask and shield, and gloves. This man did not receive any meaningful human contact. You can’t see a warm smile behind a mask, and you can’t feel the tenderness of touch through a glove.
I do not condemn the well-intentioned efforts of the nurses and doctors to protect their patient. This is not a story of blame but of consequence. It brought me to tears—the loss of humanity this man had to endure and the stolen opportunity his children should have had to be present with their father.
Phone calls and video chats are wonderful uses of technology that I am grateful for, but they are not a substitute for human interaction. I pray that the fear of this pandemic does not overshadow the human capacity for compassion. To be human is to love, share, and comfort. If fear prevents us from being present during the transitions of life, such as the birth of a child or death of a loved one, what has become of our humanity?