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Globe Magazine

All across the country, health care workers save lives and show deep compassion

Facing COVID-19, nurses, doctors, cleaning crews, and so many others show the meaning of selflessness, writes the doctor and novelist behind "The House of God."

Staff in the special pathogen unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Staff in the special pathogen unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Samuel Shem.
Samuel Shem. Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

I’m a writer and a doctor. I got COVID-19 because I was promoting my new medical novel, Man’s 4th Best Hospital, in early March at large gatherings of health care workers and at private dinners in the Bronx and Brooklyn. I was intensely afraid of the disease because I’m a 75-year-old doctor and know too much about disease and death to not be scared. Worse, I gave it to my partner, Janet, when I got back. She was not grateful. Nor was I.

But I was grateful for my training to overcome the fear and to look and listen to both me and my wife with a medical ear and eye and, after decades of treating patients, a bit of wisdom. When she lost a bit of faith in me, I suggested she call our own doctor. How grateful we were to have him. And that’s another sad gratitude: I am of a privileged class, not struggling for care as so many millions, mostly poor and of color, have had to do in this cracked medical system.

All across the country during the pandemic, the usual stress in hospitals went off the charts. And yet facing the extremes, together, often lifted us up. Nurses, doctors, medical students, physician’s assistants, specialists, the cleaning and transportation crews, techies keeping the machines going, orderlies doing everything, administrators in the background shuffling beds and finding supplies — all of us went into another realm of dealing with pain and suffering, showing compassion in selfless ways. Often, in the face of someone dying alone, because families couldn’t be there, we did all we could to make sure families could be “present” on screens. Connection brings out kindness.

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Janet and I came out of the vicious six weeks fighting the disease with a profound sense of the importance of a doctor simply making good connection, listening, and advising. “Being on call.” To think of the tens of millions who will never have that experience? It’s an indictment of us all. The real risk is to become isolated. Isolation is a killer. Connection heals.

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Years ago, after I had come through a long rough spell, I decided to put as my signature on e-mails: “Gratitude.” Whenever I send an e-mail, my eye catches that “Gratitude, Shem.” It makes me recall my suffering, and the release of my suffering.

If we walk through suffering with others, with caring others (and that’s our jobs as health care workers, to be with people at the worst times of their lives) — we can heal.

__________

Samuel Shem is author of the novels The House of God and its sequel Man’s 4th Best Hospital.

The Co-Workers Who Feel Like Family

Rebecca Negrini

COVID-19 gripped Berkshire County soon after Massachusetts’ second case was detected there in early March. Wanting to lift people’s spirits and celebrate diversity, the town of Great Barrington painted rainbow crosswalks. “We were so touched by their efforts,” says nursing assistant Rebecca Negrini, who works in the medical surgical unit at Fairview Hospital (and took the photo below). Negrini and four of her colleagues — registered nurses (from left) Rae Bradbury Williams, Colleen Fernbacher, Ellen Beckwith, and Carmen Brown — went for a stroll after their shift on May 6, National Nurses Day. “I am so proud of them, our med-surg unit, and the hospital itself,” Negrini says. “Everyone feels like family, on every single level — we care for our patients and for each other.” —Lisa Button

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