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Don’t Touch Me With a 6-Foot Pole

An Oncologist’s Memoir During the COVID-19 Pandemic


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Rujuta Saksena, MD

Rujuta Saksena, MD

The universe has an intriguing way of registering our wishes and delivering them in convoluted, mutated forms. Last winter, I recall coming home after a long day at the hospital and being ambushed by my 3-year-old daughter and preteen son. She wanted to play, he needed help with homework, and they were both dodging dinner time. My husband was away on a work trip. I remember setting free a silent wish: how nice it would be to have some time to myself!

By day, I take care of patients with cancer, but my nights and weekends belong to my family. Self-care is a rather difficult task, and quiet is a word in the dictionary. After work, I come home to a house brimming with human chaos. My kids want nothing to do with the nanny once mommy is home. My aging in-laws live with us, and both need hearing aids but refuse to accept it. This leads to trumpeted conversations against a backdrop of Wheel of Fortune reruns and old Bollywood songs. By now you must have sensed why I fantasize about solitude.

In early 2020, when COVID-19 first came to America, I did not imagine it would affect my professional and personal life in any dramatic way. But, akin to a black hole, the gravity of this pandemic has sucked us all in rather abruptly. By late March, the hospital where I practice was saturated with the virus. To help with this onslaught of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, my group enlisted for battle against the infinitesimal enemy.

“Asking my 3-year-old daughter to stay 6 feet away from me was like asking the ocean to stay dry.”
— Rujuta Saksena, MD

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It didn’t take long for my housemates to have palpitations every time I let out a sneeze. And asking my 3-year-old daughter to stay 6 feet away from me was like asking the ocean to stay dry. The sensible thing to do was move out while I was at risk for exposure and transmission. It felt surreal—packing up essentials and saying my goodbyes. The universe granted my wish for solitude, but in a messy, morphed way.

Challenging Times

The days taking care of patients with COVID pneumonia were challenging. Firstly, these patients are quite sick, with high oxygen requirements. As an oncologist, I hadn’t seen much of that, and it was a bit out of my comfort zone. When they deteriorated and needed ICU evaluation, I would get PTSD-flavored flashbacks that transported me back to my residency ICU shifts.

There’s something dark and indescribable about seeing a man gasp for air while his lungs are sodden with a virus for which there is no cure. But perhaps the saddest thing about this calamity has been to witness suffering in isolation. Some hospital rooms have a window next to the door, which allow us to see how they’re faring—a portal into their agony. They are alone, yet so are those family members who are unable to visit them. I did what I could: read updates on COVID-19 treatments, collaborated with my colleagues, updated family members of patients who were unable to visit them.

The heaviness of these days was aerated by upsides of life in quarantine. My sleep was uninterrupted. I would eat food right off the skillet that heated it. It was enjoyable to eat a meal in peace while watching a movie. Ironically, the first movie I saw then was The Shawshank Redemption, a movie about disconnection. On my days off, I would read in peace while drinking my hot tea. I also felt a surge of gratitude for distance-collapsing technologies. My daily FaceTime sessions with my family and ongoing support from friends sparked many smiles during those days alone. Ultimately, it was my sense of purpose and conviction that I was “doing the right thing” that kept me afloat.

“I could never have imagined that my reverie of solitude would manifest in this sardonic way, but it has turned out to be a self-excavation of sorts.”
— Rujuta Saksena, MD

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It was a time of reintroduction and reconnection with myself. I was learning to be an architect of my reality—choosing my thoughts and reactions to external powers, learning to digest the delays and detours. I could never have imagined that my reverie of solitude would manifest in this sardonic way, but it has turned out to be a self-excavation of sorts. I am unearthing the good with the bad, all while I look back at this imperfectly beautiful life I have, a vista that is only possible from the vantage point of isolation. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Saksena reported no conflicts of interest.

Dr. Saksena is an oncologist at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center in Summit, New Jersey. Her Twitter handle is @saksena39.

 

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.
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