For many years I kept a postcard depicting The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius taped to my bathroom mirror. Painted by Pierre-Jacques Volaire in 1777, it depicts the cataclysmic day in 79 A.D. when the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried under a thick carpet of volcanic ash. Within the span of 24 hours, a sophisticated culture with running water, toilets, saunas, and spectacularly decorated homes was completely destroyed.
I would look at that painting every day as I got ready for work because my daughter had become desperately ill and I felt as though my world had ended. That picture gave me perspective about my troubles. Recently I’ve been looking for that old postcard because I think I need to put it on the mirror again.
I’ve been fighting the COVID blues and I need to maintain perspective. About 4 months into the pandemic, I called my 95-year-old mother, who was quarantined in her house. I asked her if what we were going through was like the hardships of World War II. I thought she would say that our present struggles were nothing compared to those of the past.
Instead, she said, “No, I think this is harder because back then, we had each other.”
She had put her finger on it. Although COVID-19 has negatively impacted patient care, disrupted education at every level, and brought the economic engine nearly to a halt, perhaps the biggest problem has been the social isolation. We need to be able to go worship services, celebrate weddings, attend funerals, hug our patients and our friends, and sit in classes. We need each other.
Almost exactly one year after the beginning of the pandemic, there are hopeful signs. COVID-19 cases are decreasing and vaccination programs are increasing. However, it seems unlikely that the world will ever go back to the way it was. I am trying to focus on the small silver linings of COVID like finding new ways to manage patients remotely, learning to collaborate through Zoom and Teams rather than always having to travel to meetings, and the flexibility of working from home. I have also lost 35 lbs. because I don’t like eating alone. I put that in the silver lining category, however.
I will admit it, I am still not myself. I still struggle with “COVID brain.” I am less focused and less efficient with my time. I find myself staring into space.
I need to be reminded of the lesson I learned years ago, which is that the antidote to sadness is thankfulness. Against all odds, my daughter recovered, and because of what we went through, I am thankful for every day with her. COVID-19 has sensitized me to the many simple things I once took for granted. Now I am thankful to be able go to work at my clinic and see my wonderful staff, even if their faces are covered. I am thankful any time I can see a facial expression. I am thankful to go into a restaurant of any kind. I am thankful I can visit my Mom. If the day ever dawns that I can go into a store without my face covered, I will say a prayer of thanks. If I ever get to travel again, I will not complain about a line the airport. If I get to hug someone, I will be thankful.
A few days ago, my favorite museum, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, had a special exhibit on Pompeii. I went with my son, who was about to leave for basic training in the Army National Guard. He had practically grown up in that museum and we thought we’d make one last mother–son excursion. They limited the number of people in the exhibit by requiring reservations, and of course everyone wore masks. A fantastically well-done computer animation depicted on a big screen the sudden and total destruction of the city. We walked through recreations of some of the spectacularly decorated houses. Finally, we came to the plaster casts of the bodies of people who died attempting to flee. Nearly two thousand years after they were encased in ash, it is possible to see their facial expressions. That is what the end of civilization looks like.
COVID may have changed our lives, but it hasn’t ended them. That’s the perspective that I need, and I’m thankful for it.
Caroline E. Fife is Chief Medical Officer at Intellicure Inc., The Woodlands, TX; executive director of the U.S. Wound Registry; medical director of St. Luke’s Wound Clinic, The Woodlands; and co-chair of the Alliance of Wound Care Stakeholders.