A Guide in the Middle of COVID-19
March 19, 2020
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
My 21-year-old son attends university in Scotland. Scotland is a beautiful country filled with some of the loveliest people I have met in my travels. They are warm, friendly and willing to help a stranger, even if you can’t always understand what they are saying to you. Those thick Scottish brogues can be difficult! Just sayin’.
Three years ago, when I took my son to Scotland to drop him off at school, Scotland was a much scarier place for me than it is now. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to leave my son behind on a different continent. I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to transfer money to him if he needed it. I wasn’t sure how he was going to live without Amazon Prime deliveries for four academic years. But most of all, I took my life in my hands every time I crossed the street. Initially, I thought driving on the opposite side of the road would be difficult, but that challenge proved surmountable fairly quickly. Keeping track of where cars were driving when I was trying to walk across a road proved to be a much more difficult task.
Every time we needed to walk across a street, my son ended up grabbing my arm and pulling me back as I started to step right in front of an oncoming car. Seriously, “Look both ways before you cross,” is harder over there, somehow! In Edinburgh, I had occasion to cross a street all alone, without my son to pull me from the jaws of death. As I stood on the side of the road, I thought that it would be a good idea to stand near a Scottish person and just follow him or her when they started across the street, preventing my perpetual misperceptions of car distance. There was a woman near me, so I began, as unobtrusively as I could, to follow right behind her as she stepped out into the street. It was a big street— at least two lanes in each direction. And we were about halfway across when I noticed for the first time that my unwitting crossing guard was wearing dark glasses and tapping a cane on the asphalt in front of her as she walked.
She was blind (literally). And I was blind (figuratively). It was actually “the blind leading the blind.” It was just a matter of time before we would be plowed down by a car.
I will never be allowed to forget this story. My children take great pleasure in reminding me of it regularly. But over the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of this story for a different reason.
Think about the first time in your entire life that you ever heard of the Wuhan Coronavirus, or COVID-19. And think about all that has transpired since that day. Maybe you were on the leading edge and knew about this virus when it first emerged last November. Maybe you weren’t that aware of current events in Chinese epidemiology. But, at the most, the longest any of us has known of the existence of this virus is five months. And as I write, we as a nation are vacillating between uncertainty, panic and diligence as we attempt to prepare for its continued spread in the U.S. And we as a healthcare profession are not much less uncertain or much less panicked than the general population, if we’re honest. We may not be hoarding toilet paper (you had better not be hoarding toilet paper!), but we are letting our thoughts and fears take us to dark places. We are thinking of what our families will do without our incomes if we become one of the healthcare professionals who is intubated with ARDS. We are thinking of what file we put our long-term disability insurance information in. We are figuring out ways to get our hands on N95 respirators despite the shortage. Some of you who are much smarter and more creative than I am are even thinking about how to 3D print ventilator parts or convert dog ventilators in order to increase the U.S. ventilator supply.
Of course, we are trained to respond in crises, and we are paid to care for people. When there are not enough resources, part of that job is to get creative, put our hearts into it and figure out how to provide the best care we can with the limited resources available. Those are good things. Those are the things God called us to do when He called us into this profession. Our callings as healthcare professionals also entail answering all those phone calls, texts and Facebook messages from scared or confused friends and relatives, doing our part to correct the misinformation that is rampant in our society right now. We are here, like Esther, “for such a time as this,” to be God’s servants in a society that needs guidance—both medical and spiritual.
But if we are to serve and lead that society, to quell its fears, to care for its COVID-19 infections, to answer its never-ending questions about whether or not we really need to do this whole social distancing thing, we must do it with our eyes open.
What do I mean by that? I am not talking here about medical expertise. That, of course, is critical. But that is being addressed by many, many things you are reading right now. I’ll wager you haven’t read much else in the medical literature over the last month. It goes without saying that we must be good and competent and qualified healthcare professionals. That is part of our calling. But here I’m talking about our spiritual blindness.
How many times have you read Scripture as compared to the number of COVID-19 journal articles or MD updates you have read? How many times have you prayed as compared to the number of times you have washed your hands? How hard have you searched for spiritual protection—from fear, anxiety, etc.—as compared to your search for some appropriate PPE? How carefully have you guarded your heart as compared to how carefully you have guarded your office’s hand sanitizer, gloves and masks? (And since when do patients steal PPE from their own doctors, for goodness sake? But that’s a different topic…)
We are newly arrived in this world of COVID-19 infection and it is scary, much as Scotland was to me at the beginning of our family’s association with it. There is information we don’t have about this new world. There are questions that cannot yet be answered. There are legitimate dangers. This is why we must choose our guide carefully.
I spent the vast majority of the last 48 hours answering questions, reviewing protocols and reading information. I chose my sources carefully and I reminded myself often that I should be calm and rational. And yet I ended the weekend with a feeling of great anxiety. I found myself lying in bed Sunday night running through doomsday scenarios in my mind and thinking about how I would respond to each of them. (This, by the way, is not a good cure for insomnia.) I am generally not an anxious person at all, and I have almost never in my life had difficulty sleeping. And yet, there I was—anxious and awake. Why? Because I followed the guide in front of me rather than seeking a Guide who can see the way ahead. The guide in front of me was experienced medical opinion, data and statistics. All good things that are needed and helpful. But none of those things can see the way ahead of me, or of you, or of COVID-19. Those things may be street signs or traffic cops. But they are not the Guide.
The Guide is the One who created COVID-19 and knows every particle of its RNA. The Guide is the One who created me and knows every hair on my head. The Guide is the One who is sovereign, whether or not we can get N95s, and even whether or not we can get toilet paper. The Guide is the One we have spent our lives training to follow. Why is it so easy to be distracted from Him when all the earthly guides surround us and try to incite us to fear, anxiety and panic?
When I began to realize that I was letting the blind lead the blind yet again in my life, and when I stepped back to refocus my eyes on the Guide, it became clear that I was spending my weekend all wrong. I need the medical information, certainly. I need to know what to do in my outpatient setting in my community with my patients. But I don’t need every detail of every patient in every place in the world, and I certainly don’t need to know about every doctor who has become infected and is now ventilated! I know my personal risk, so of course I need to do what I can responsibly do to mitigate it. But I don’t need to assume the burden of every doctor’s shortage of PPE—I can’t fix that from where I sit. I have confused friends and family, and of course I need to answer their questions and support and help them as I am able. But I don’t need to be responsible for correcting all the misinformation on Facebook. I can’t do it, and it’s not my role. My role is to follow the Guide and to be completely present where I am, doing the work He put in front of me.
It’s amazing how my days changed after I chose a better Guide. My daughter and I baked banana bread and took it to each of our neighbors in order to make sure they had our phone number and knew they could call us if they need anything. I was a mom and wife and neighbor and friend to the best of my ability. Then I went to work and calmed the fears of each patient or staff member who needed it. I practiced medicine to the best of my ability. This is where God called me, and if I let the cares and fears of the entire world distract me from here, I will simply be blindly stumbling across another street, and it will just be a matter of time before the crash.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4, ESV).