I am losing my voice. I don’t know what else to say.
Part of me wants to continue to train, for my own sake, because it lets me know I am still healthy and able, and it assures my kids of our routines — we wait to have dinner with Mom — after her workout.
But I also stood in the rain all day shivering, triaging people from their cars in the parking lot as rain poured down misery on me, and I felt myself getting antsy because I was under-fueled for my easy 7 later.
They weren’t easy.
I stopped my workout short and thought of the 35-year-old man who poured out his heart to me and cried about the abuse he has suffered. He asked for me to help him somehow, and that fifteen minutes allotted for his visit felt like mockery.
As a family physician this is what I’m trained for, but it’s more than any of us have seen before.
The illness is one thing. I expected it to come again. I am not sure why I didn’t mentally prepare for all the patients with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
From my side of the stethoscope, as the pandemic began to shift, I saw three times as many patients scheduling to talk about anxiety, depression, insomnia, and substance abuse.
Every. Single. Person. Apologized.
They apologized to me and told me they “never liked taking medicine,” but that they had “tried everything,” believed they had failed, and as a last effort, were asking their doctor for help. Everyone told me that they couldn’t understand why they felt like this.
Runners know stress. We fear the twinges. We dread the niggles, but listen for them carefully, knowing that if we don’t hear what begins as a whispered cue will get amplified by our body to a scream that we cannot ignore. Runners learn through experience to listen to the stillest, quietest, most distant voices. In order to maintain health we must nurture this connection with ourselves, and others.
I will keep running, I must, but where my eyes and heart would normally be directed toward Boston, right now my heart is on my people.
I think maybe it is the agonizing juxtaposition of emotions contained within each little exam room…
I walk into one, and there is a widow grieving the death of her husband to Covid. I walk into the next, and the guy tells me to take off my “silly” mask. I summon professionalism and carry on as if the patient hadn’t just mocked me.
A woman is 14 minutes late for her 15 minute appointment and doesn’t understand why I need her to reschedule even though I’m double booked throughout the day.
I take the time to call my Afghani patient because I haven’t seen him, and I am worried. He tells me he is using his contacts to try and rescue his parents who are stuck in Afghanistan. His father bestowed a blessing on me before he left — calling me his “second daughter.” I don’t know how to pray like a Muslim, but I tell the son that I pray Godspeed on his mission. My heart goes with the son through that phone call. He is a single father. I am his emergency contact, and I wonder what to do if I am notified that he has been killed.
There is a newborn baby I am to evaluate. The room is filled with excitement and nervousness. But I can’t help thinking that this baby should not be here, barely entered into this world, now surrounded by Delta. The parents are too overjoyed and exhausted to be sharing my morbid thoughts. They aren’t wearing masks.
As physicians, we are tired of ranting, and we can’t risk it. We are the only professional group I know of that isn’t allowed to strike or to protest. I am not sure we know what we want because our calling is caring and protecting the lives of those who vehemently believe and live differently. Yet these days feel different — entirely different.
I was never bothered by death before. It was just part of my work. I would have even said I felt gifted in walking with people through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I considered hospice care as a sub-specialty. Yet this season has changed something in me. It feels like I have barely returned from a brutal war and have been thrown back in with people who don’t believe the war existed.
My mental health mindset says, ”You don’t need for them to believe nor see what you see. That would be seeking external validation. Be strong in yourself, Margi.” We’re not supposed to need others’ validation, but we do need others in our lives. Now more than possibly ever. For support, sanity, and safety, we need others.
But it feels like mockery; it feels like cruel derision to have patients ask me, ”Is Covid really that bad?” To have survived bagging more bodies than I ever imagined and to come back to serve people who have no clue about the depths of this virus.
I am weary. I am more weary than I thought I could be. Even beyond that of surgical residency, when I worked 121-hour weeks — those sleepless years of misery, even while training for a marathon on top of it all, I don’t recall being this weary. It’s a constant revolving door of illness.
As runners we understand how to endure fatigue, we know how to persevere under duress, but we also understand that the body and mind need a respite. There’s a reason runners structure their lives around finish lines. The experienced racer learns, often through failure, that you cannot go flat out indefinitely.
Yet my family and I find ourselves here again. When my kids brought Covid home, we tried to act with hope. I had already overcome it before. We attempted not to dwell on the reality that I could get seriously sick again or that my heart could fail anew. I spent the past week watching as my resting heart rate climbed…again feeling the dreaded fatigue and breathlessness of this disease.
I didn’t even tell my running coach, not because he wouldn’t support me, but because I hardly wanted to admit it to myself. My heart rested at 47 beats per minute, then higher, then higher still, until it was back in the 120s like in Spring 2020. I’d worked so hard to rebuild its ability the past year. “Resting” at that rate feels like running hard while sitting still.
But I refuse to let go of hope.
I have reason to believe I will be fine — I am so thankful for my vaccination!
But my feelings about Boston, about a return to the marathon… I haven’t figured out yet.
And I think that’s ok. My heart is on my patients. My heart is in Afghanistan. My heart is in another state where a child was transferred without a parent because there are no pediatric beds available.
I long for a finish line, but my heart is not focused on getting to Copley Square.
I feel angst.
I miss the road. I miss how it allows me to feel the reassurance of God’s love and to offer it to others.
I wish I could find the voice and energy to invite the next loudly-opinionated person who insists that there can only be one way… “Please, just tell me what I can do to be a better friend to YOU, and then, allow me to do the same with you.” Let’s put aside the war to be right. Let’s put away the battle to be the most heard, and let’s fight most fiercely for a way to care genuinely for one another as people.
I wish I had the energy to meet everyone with the kind of emotional charity with which runners gather. I love how the running community connects as runners first, celebrates above all, what we share, and within that safe place, are able to authentically know and celebrate the individual.
Maybe connecting like runners provides the sanctuary for vulnerability, fosters bravery, and allows us to ask for and give the best help.
Anyway, I think that’s what I wish I could do or say if I weren’t so tired.
This story was written by Margi Johnson, edited by me.
Thank you to Margi for sharing with us and caring for so many others. Please be kind to those around you. As she shared, people are hurting in ways that they’ve never experienced or expected.
If you’d like to connect with Margi you can find her here.
And if you can, summon the grace to reach out and support one another.