By G Morse
This is from my perspective a medical student whilst living in Chicago, Illinois, during the height of the pandemic and the following year thereafter:
Her wails reverberated off the Intensive Care Unit walls. A wife, whose husband, that was COVID positive (amongst a plethora of concomitant organ failure), was dying. He was in medical isolation which meant only physicians could enter his room. His wife was forced to watch her husband’s last breaths through a glass window. That dreadful abyss from her body, past the thick glass, across the grimy linoleum floor, to his bed was far too vast. My heart ached. Actually, no – it broke in that moment. I managed to scrounge a lima bean-green colored chair, one that had a corner ripped away exposing a yellow foam with wooden arms that were worn raw, along with a box of stale tissues, for her. Her son propped her on the chair like a stiff doll as the medical team gave her space. Her husband left the world 7 minutes thereafter.
I moved to Chicago during the height of the pandemic, and that day was one of many that were to follow. I witnessed death, fear, sadness. I saw agitation and fear and rising violence. Psychiatric wards were overflowing with patients. The cause? Pure, horrid isolation.
I too felt that isolation. I was often depressed, hopeless. I would return home alone. I would study alone, eat alone, run errands in a city where everyone was shrouded in a mask, rigid to maintain a car’s-length distance from you let alone speak to you. Social life was non-existent. In a way, the city was more quiet – yet tumultuous – than ever. It wasn’t quiet, I thought one morning, it was tense.
I sustained myself on pure anxiety and grief. As many of those reading may know, with depression, one of the worst facets of it is knowing that you could be doing better, but that first step to try is the largest step you will ever take in your life. In the words of a most cherished psychiatrist I worked with, “I’d rather be physically ill than ill of the mind – that is pure torture.”
The days turned into months as summer arrived. I attempted to make a few friends, gave a go at a half-hearted relationship, once or twice per month I would force myself to throw on crusty running shoes and occasionally joined a street-running group. I tried, I really did. For the most part, I reverted back to my introverted hopeless norm. There were times when, in my darkest most exhausted moments, I contemplated whether this was a life worth continuing. All I did, for the longest time, was work, sleep, and feel sad.
I no longer live in Chicago. I realized sunshine and nature were more important to me than I had originally anticipated, and the moment I was able to leave those LED-lit glowing corridors of the hospital for the final time, I sprinted for the exit. I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration to suggest it was an experience which left me traumatized. I sometimes, in those quiet moments, still think about that woman at the window watching her husband take his final breaths.
I decided to prioritize me. I sought to find myself a tribe, a community of like-minded people who are also recovering from three years of chaos and uncertainty and demands on our time and personhood. Being a doctor or a nurse is trying at the best of times, but those weeks which became months which became years were like an active warzone. There are support groups like this all over the country. Like me, some have left the work having wanted to do nothing else all their lives.
I began to rebuild my life, even met someone, and very slowly began to feel like myself again. I spend a lot of time in nature now. It doesn’t really even occur to me not to go breath fresh air and look at the sky, regardless of whether its sun, rain, or anything in between.
I think at this point it’s pretty much accepted fact that COVID-19 had a significant impact on mental health, not least on the medical professionals and front-line workers of all sorts. According to the National Institutes of Health, numerous mental health symptoms have arisen following COVID infection including higher bouts of anxiety and depression, psychosis, seizures, suicidal ideations, and for many, impaired cognitive function (aka “brain fog”). For those like myself who have felt as though they’d been in that survivalist flight-or-fight mode for nearly three years now, you are not alone. Nor are we alone historically, a pandemic of this kind being long overdue, in fact. And another will likely follow in the not-too-distant future.
Clearly, the causation for rising mental illness following the COVID-19 insurgence is multifactorial. Yet, it does not take a formal psychologist to determine its origins, merely a basic understanding of our very social nature as a species, and then to factor in this extended period of isolation and uncertainty. It was a virus which infected all of us with fear, if not the virus itself – fear of becoming sick, fear of making others sick, fear of navigating a life working from home, fear of pressures to visit family or not during the holidays to “keep the COVID numbers low”, and the personal (or, for some, mandated) decision to receive an experimental vaccine about which many, such as myself, felt a great deal of scepticism. Said another way, the lack of certainty combined with isolation was really bad news for human brains.
As I write this, my partner and I are talking about maybe having a baby, and even just the mention of the idea cast me back into a hospital room and I began to feel a rising tension. Long-COVID comes in many forms, I guess.
G Morse is a former medical student and nurse, who now lives in the North-West of America and works as a teaching assistant. She spends her spare time reading science fiction, walking her dog Astro, and being active in local politics. She wishes to remain anonymous.