• Claire N. Saunders

By Myself But Never Alone

Last night, I read an interesting opinion piece published in The New York Times by Daniela J. Lamasa, a critical care doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She wrote about patients dying alone from COVID-19 because they can't risk allowing loved ones to be by their sides. This is yet another facet of the global pandemic that we are just beginning to address.

While social distancing is important in stopping the spread of this virus, it is not without its cost. This issue extends beyond the financial burdens businesses bear by having to close their doors indefinitely. Humans need connection. Whether it is a cup of coffee and conversation with a friend, a hug, or even just a smile, basic human interaction goes a long way in staving off the feeling of loneliness. For many individuals, it feels like COVID-19 took all this away overnight.

The mental and physical health implications of extended loneliness are real, and they need to be taken seriously. A survey in 2019 by the University of Michigan found that 1 in 3 US adults ages 50 to 80 reported feeling a lack of companionship, and 1 in 4 reported feeling isolated from others. This was before social distancing became common practice. Many are saying that the COVID-19 crisis could cause a loneliness epidemic, particularly in older Americans who are already struggling with these feelings.

Personally, the past few weeks have been exhausting. I've stayed away from much of the news because a lot of the coverage of (young) people describing their respiratory distress and subsequent hospitalization hits too close to home for me. However, amidst all of the anxiety, I have been blown away by the support I have felt from my community. The only thing that has made all of this manageable is the connections I have with my family, friends, boyfriend, and coworkers.

When I first got sick and was struggling to get a diagnosis, I got to know the inside of hospitals well. Until I knew how manageable my condition was, I thought a lot about the what-ifs. I can't tell you the amount of times I looked out the window of my hospital room and wondered if this would be the last view I get to see.

I don't know anyone who hopes they die in a hospital. Even in the worst case scenario, I hope they would imagine their loved ones nearby with a hand to squeeze when it all starts to feel like too much. Many COVID-19 patients don't get a hand to hold. This is tragic and for patients and challenging for their loved ones. All of them will deal with the psychological repercussions of this for months and years after this pandemic has subsided.

Having to isolate patients is also difficult for the doctors, nurses, and medical staff who are forced to abandon their ethical oath of “Do no harm” to “Do minimal harm.” All things considered, it might be better to say “Harm the mind to save the body.” But really, what is one without the other?

In her article, Dr. Lamasa does a fantastic job articulating the problem we are currently facing of patients coping with illness—and in some cases dying—in rooms by themselves. She even proposes the solution which her hospital is already working to implement: Equipt rooms with video chatting options for patients in isolation. Concurrently, instruct doctors on how to empathetically deliver bad news over video chat. This level of connection is so important for patients and families going through difficult medical experiences like COVID 19, just as it is vital to the whole recovery process.

But I disagree with Dr. Lamasa on one point: no one in this will die alone. We may be separated by walls. However, we can never be separated from the human experience. Lately, I keep thinking about this passage from Meditation 17 by John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I read somewhere that Donne wrote these verses when he was sick and reflecting on how ultimately, every death diminishes mankind. I interpret it to mean that we are always connected to the human experience, whether we want to be or not.

After these past few weeks, I image that we all sometimes wish we would drift off the shore away to a place where we felt safe again. In that place, we could sit, laugh, and drink with friends and our troubles would wash away into the sea. However, I am so happy to be a part of the continent, a part of the main, a part of the beautiful mess that is mankind.

Through gloves, computer screens, and walls, the human connection will not be broken. Even though we may be by ourselves, we are never alone.


© 2020 by Claire N. Saunders.