COVID vs Cancer

I’m a cancer nurse these days. It’s an undeniable fact of My Life — some of my patients will die. That’s what cancer does. Less of them die than in days of old, and less die right away. Time is the gift we can give when we cannot give a cure.

Nearly every week when I open my computer I am notified electronically that a patient I cared for has transitioned to The Next Thing. For most of them, it is expected. For many of them and their families, it is a blessing to know the suffering has ended. Because we gave them support, time, and a chance earlier in their diagnosis, sometimes there is even peace.

Azrael comes. Politely, knocking. Tip-toeing in amidst family members and hospice nurses.

This week I lost my first patient to the ravages of the pandemic. Not cancer.

One week.

It took seven days to go from life-as-they-knew-it-at-home to a cough and fever to intubated and then dead in an ICU.

It. Was. So. Brutally. Fast.

Azrael came for this patient. Not politely. She did not knock — She blew open the doors and rode in on a fiery chariot. There were no family members in Her way — only battle-hardened ICU nurses who understood the fruitlessness of their fight.

One week.

Death and I are old friends. I’ve attended many transitions. Too many to even attempt to count. None of them had the same flavor of randomness and sorrow. COVID patients die alone.

And that is incredibly painful for nurses to bear.

In the midst of this heavy burden of grief walks another casualty of the pandemic. And for many of us who sit shiva with Death, it is hard to understand. The mindset and fear that tells a Human their health is less important than their livelihood. But the demons are real and true.

Humans are not just losing their lives — they are losing their ability to have a life. The social supports for non-essential workers is a disgrace. Humans need to support their families. As a society, we have failed them. We continue to fail them just as miserably as we failed my patient.

It may take longer than seven days — maybe seven weeks — certainly not much more than that — before the rubber hits the road and desperation drives a population to weigh risks to their health versus financial survival.

No one is coming to help them. We are a country who brags about their bootstraps. We cannot condemn those souls willing to sacrifice their own health to do what they have been programmed to do — pull themselves up by said bootstraps and just do what they have to. Regardless of the price.

As a nurse, I want everyone to stay safe. I don’t want to keep opening my computer to more and more of my patient’s names appearing in the post mortem tab. Cause of death: COVID. I don’t want to lose a colleague, or a friend, or a loved one to this plague. I just don’t.

As a Human, I feel the suffering. Not just the suffering of the sick — but of all those who struggle. The Humans who need their jobs. It’s not that society needs its hair and nails done — we need those jobs back in our communities. Humans need financial as well as physical means of survival. People need to work. And they are getting desperate enough to risk their lives and take their chances with COVID. Because those odds are better odds than the ones of their financial survival if they keep staying home.

As an asthmatic, I wonder if The Earth will ever be safe for me again? Will I ever be free again? Or has my world changed forever? I feel the claustrophobia of being in isolation and the loneliness of missing my family and friends. I wonder if I caught ‘It’ — would I survive? Or would I be seven days to dead?

There is no going back. The only way out is through. If we look back — or dally too long — we risk being turned to a pillar of salt.

So. Tomorrow I will open my computer. I will bless my patients. My colleagues. My family. My friends. And all beings everywhere who suffer. Those who suffer especially from the fall out of the pandemic. Physically — those who are ill. Emotionally — those who grieve losses. Financially — those who are unable to work at this time. Spiritually — those who have had their faith shaken. And in Remembrance — for those who have walked with Azrael to The Next Thing in These Days.

Won’t you please join me?


Self discovery in progress, stay tuned

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