The Covid Balancing Act for Doctors

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My wife’s parents have led a relatively monastic existence since about mid-March.

Both are in their 80s and live independently in rural Pennsylvania, maintaining a three-acre property by themselves. My father-in-law, the older of the two, has skirted major medical problems despite a decades-long indiscriminate diet, a testimony to the triumph of genetics over lifestyle choices. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, has been ravaged by lupus, which flares regularly and requires medications that suppress her immune system.

So when Covid-19 hit, we feared for their health, given their ages and her compromised immunity, and begged that they place themselves on lockdown, so we wouldn’t lose them to the pandemic.

And they did.

Where they used to buy groceries at their local Giant Eagle supermarket (which they call the “Big Bird,”) they turned instead to Instacart for home delivery, shrugging off the random items their shopper would get wrong with good humor.

Where they used to attend church in person every Sunday, they caught the video highlights online when they became available on Monday morning.

We arranged weekly Zoom calls with them, to replace our frequent visits.

We used to say that their social life rivaled ours, as they got together with friends they have known since kindergarten (kindergarten!) several times each week for dinner, drinks or shows. Instead, during the pandemic, they’ve replaced those social events with going cruising together in their blue ’55 Chevy Bel Air, satisfying themselves with the feel of a car they first drove in their teens, the beautiful countryside and a wave at their friends, who sat at a safe distance on their front porches.

Our whole family has been proud of them to the point of bursting. But in September, after six months of this, my father-in-law got antsy and did the unthinkable: He went to the hardware store, ostensibly for a tool, but really to see his friends who tend to congregate there.

He caught hell for his modest indiscretion, first from his wife, and then from mine. They explained to him that he could have ordered the piece online. They reminded him that his actions can affect my mother-in-law, and her frail health, too. Finally, he had enough.

“I’m 85 years old,” he said. “Eighty-five! I’m careful, I wore a mask. What do you expect me to do, spend the rest of my days here in prison?”

That gave me pause — my wife, too. At 85, he had done the math. Despite his lucky genetics, he probably didn’t have many years left on this earth, and he didn’t want to spend one or two of them in isolation.

Understanding the risks and consequences of his actions, shouldn’t he be allowed to see his buddies at the hardware store, and maybe buy a tool while he’s there?

I thought about it from the perspective of my patients, many of whom also don’t have much time left on this earth, and the conversations we had been having in clinic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was “Dr. No,” prohibiting my patients, most of whom have devastated immune systems, from engaging in their usual social activities. Where much of what we had all been hearing from government authorities about Covid-19 transmission had often been contradictory, I wanted to give concrete advice.

Attending a family gathering to celebrate a birthday? No.

How about a high school graduation party for a granddaughter? No.

Visiting elderly parents in another state? Not safe for you or them.

A road trip to Montana with a friend (this from a man in his 80s with leukemia): Are you kidding me?

At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I feared for my patients’ health, as I did for my in-laws’ health, and wanted to protect them.

But perhaps because our understanding of Covid-19’s epidemiology has gotten better over time; or with our recognition that we may have to live with the pandemic for many months more; or given my father-in-law’s perspective that people at the end of life should make their own risk-benefit calculations, my conversations have now become more nuanced.

I’m more open to my patients not missing important life events, when there may not be much life for them left, provided they take precautions to avoid endangering themselves or those around them, particularly amid the most recent surge in Covid-19 cases.

One woman with leukemia was receiving chemotherapy early in 2020 when her daughter had a miscarriage. Now that her daughter is eight months pregnant again, can she hold the baby when it is born? Absolutely, let’s talk about how to do it safely.

Another patient’s mother died. Can she attend the funeral? Yes, with appropriate distancing, limited numbers, and personal protective equipment. But skip the reception.

The road trip to Montana? I still wasn’t comfortable with that, but my patient and his friend went anyway, took their own food, slept in their truck, and he returned without Covid-19.

And my father-in-law? He gets out of the house a little bit more than he used to, but not as much as he’d like. The rare times that he does nowadays, he is always masked and stays outdoors, and both he and my mother-in-law remain Covid-19-free.

Which strikes me as about the right balance.

Mikkael Sekeres (@mikkaelsekeres) is the chief of the Division of Hematology, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author of When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons from Leukemia.”

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