That’s one of the first things those who’ve been inside a COVID ward will say. Anyone will tell you that no hospital is ever “quiet”. There are always doctors and nurses scrambling around, discussing everything from patient treatments to weekend plans. Myriad beeps and whistles and pops from various medical devices. And of course patients, and their visitors. Talking, chatting. Catching up. Wishing well. Encouraging. Fighting.
In a COVID ward, the fighting still happens. But it happens without one of the defining traits of our species: voice.
COVID patients don’t have a voice.
They don’t have strength.
They don’t have air.
And so they lie motionless in their beds, tubes down their throats as they cling to life, and hope for the best. For them, there’s only so much fighting they can do. Once the tube goes in the fighting is done. It’s anyone’s game. It could go either way. Flip a coin. Some are placed in a medically-induced coma; a desperate gamble by their doctors to allow their ruined tissues to heal. Sometimes they wake up. Sometimes they don’t. It could go either way.
Flip a coin.
But for those charged with their lives, the fight only intensifies from there. For the doctors and nurses, every day is a new struggle. They go in to work and don gowns, gloves, masks, face shields: battle armor, and they’re fighting a war. For them, every day is a battlefield, every patient a new front in a war they can’t afford to lose. Some battles are won. Some are lost. But at the end of the day, the war rages on. Their enemy knows no limits. It feels no pity. It offers no quarter. And while the doctors and nurses, being human, eventually tire, they keep working. Because their enemy never tires. It never quits. It never lets up. So neither can they.
And so they fight on, day by day, grueling battle after grueling battle. As the hours turn to days, days to weeks, weeks to months, the constant grind shows itself physically. They develop bruises on their noses from N95 masks, scrapes and cuts on their foreheads from face shields and respirator visors: battle scars, wounds sustained by soldiers defending their species. The physical toll takes time to show itself, but far worse is the mental strain, so much harder to see. They chose this line of work to save lives. They’re tough. They’re stoic. They’ve learned to hide their pain, distance themselves, because they have to. But no training could ever have prepared them for this. Some of them have started to break down. They get off their shift, pull away the masks, and cry. Tears of anguish wetting cheeks rubbed raw by masks, dried by hands chapped and bleeding from scrubbing. They suffer in silence, because they feel they must be strong. Because tomorrow, they know the battle will begin again.
Now, silence and isolation dominate their lives. By day they’re scrambling to save patients gasping for air, unable to speak, even to plead. They don’t see their patients often; medical devices are kept in the hallway outside the rooms, to protect them from their patients, and the disease they carry. By night, most of them isolate themselves, fearful of bringing the illness home, where it can infect their husbands, their wives, their children. They live in fear of seeing those they love in their wards, in those beds, gasping for air. By night they sleep in their garages, in their cars, in donated hotel rooms. Alone in the silence, their nightmares are not filled with screams, but with gasping.
We always associate disasters with noise. Explosions, collapses, crashes, screams, panic. And yet the only sound associated with this, the greatest natural disaster in a century, is silence. The eerie quiet of COVID wards. The muffled sobs of exhausted doctors and nurses. The empty streets and schoolrooms. The sense of longing and isolation we all feel. The gasping of the victims. Dying alone. Or living that way.
If anyone tells you this should be easy, they shouldn’t. If they say they aren’t hurting at all right now, they’re lying. This hurts all of us. Some more than others. All in different ways. And if anyone tries to tell you the way you, yourself, are suffering is inconsequential, don’t listen to them. But this isn’t something that can be wished away, or pretended away. What’s happening to each of us personally isn’t happening in isolation; like the gasping, it’s merely a symptom of a greater problem. And like COVID itself, it’s a problem that won’t just go away if we let it run its course. It requires treatment, patience, suffering, and perseverance.
Like most millennials, it’s safe to say I never expected to see anything like this in my lifetime. I’d read about pandemics; cholera outbreaks, epidemics of plague and smallpox, the Spanish Flu. Seeing images of bodies piled on trucks, mass graves, warehouses converted into sick wards, reading accounts of public fear and panic, it all seemed so remote. Like sea piracy and cavalry charges, it was a part of our past, something to look back on and think “Thank God we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
As such, it was jarring to see footage of bodies piled on trucks, morgues overflowing, mass graves visible from orbit. And to know that this was happening here. This was happening now. This wasn’t a cataclysmic world event I was reading about. This was a cataclysmic event that I was living in. This wasn’t happening to Justinian, or Woodrow Wilson. This was happening to me.
But in the end, as with most of us, all I can do is stand witness. This is a truly global event, perhaps the first since the second World War. From end to end, pole to pole, no human is truly safe from this pandemic. None escape its ravages, one way or another. But while for us this may be a tragedy, we are on the home front. We are as safe as anyone can be in such a terrifying time. Our medical workers, on the other hand, the doctors and nurses, are on the front lines. They are humanity’s last line of defense, the only hope for millions of us. They are fighting for us, every single day. There is only so much we can do for them. But that does not mean we are powerless to help.
The silence can be maddening. All of us are living in isolation to some extent. But we must remember why this is so important. “My body, my choice” has become a common refrain. But it’s not just you at stake. Perhaps you’ve chosen to be infected. Perhaps you’re willing to take that chance. But in making that choice, you’re taking that choice from everyone around you. Not everyone who gets sick will end up in the hospital. But many will. And our doctors and nurses are already well past their breaking point. They’re still going because they refuse to give up. So they keep fighting, in silence.
Silence at home, silence in the wards. Silence in the face of death. And even as protesters call them liars, denounce them as evil, as lazy, as they block ambulances and hospital entrances, the doctors and nurses counter-protest. Silently.
At this point, the silence is all they have. It is all they can afford, which is why we can’t afford it. We have to speak up. We have to scream. Because outside the wards, silence is indifference, and right now indifference will cost lives. So speak out. Use your voice.
And for whatever it’s worth, to any medical professionals reading this, thank you. Thank you for everything. For all you’ve done, and all you will still do in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For all the lives you tried to save, and for all you succeeded in saving. For putting everyone else ahead of yourself. For giving your time. For bearing scars. For everything you have done for all the rest of us, the grateful and ungrateful alike, thank you.
The silence is deafening, but your faces speak volumes.
This piece is part of an ongoing series, called #WritingthePandemic. I encourage all other writers on WordPress, Twitter, and elsewhere across the world to join me in sharing our stories as we #StayAtHome together.