There has been so much waiting. So many wounds that we cannot heal, questions we cannot yet answer. Which is perhaps why I leapt at the chance to bring my patient back to the unit. It was just one piece of a long process that would involve his therapist and outpatient doctors, but it was a need that I could meet. And so one recent afternoon, I found myself standing with my patient and his nephew in front of the hospital room where he had spent two months of his life.
The unit was no longer dedicated to caring for Covid patients; these were all cardiac patients now, and the fear and frenzy were gone, as were the basins of personal protective equipment. The doors to the rooms were finally open. It was as if it had never happened. My patient was quiet.
The room that had been his was empty now, and I watched as he entered, tentative at first. He walked to the place where his bed had been, and his eyes landed on the digital clock directly in front of him. He paused. He remembered this clock, watching the time pass. He remembered the window too, how the light came through.
I tried to see it through his eyes. This was just a room. It was a room where he had nearly died, but now it was a room that he could enter and exit under his own power. Before we left, his nephew asked if he could take a photo. And as I stood next to my patient, holding the bouquet of roses that he had brought to say thank you, I realized what we were doing. We were trying to rewrite the story of this room, to reclaim the months of lost time and to shift a narrative of horror and powerlessness into one of hope. My patient was still recovering, and I could not know how this visit would affect him in the days and months to come, but it was a step forward.
As we walked out of the unit, back into the world, my patient’s nephew had a question for me: “Tell me, when do you think things will get back to normal?”
I thought about my patient and his family, how critical illness and recovery will always be a part of their story. They will not be the same — none of us will. Perhaps normality is not an achievable goal for any of us right now, but with time and the necessary resources, we can find a way to be OK.
“I’m not sure,” I finally replied. “I’m not sure what normal is anymore.”
Daniela Lamas, a contributing Opinion writer, is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
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