No one asks the soldier whether she is afraid to die. That is her job. Armed with a plastic face shield, N95 mask, disposable gown, gloves, and a stethoscope, healthcare workers are medical soldiers of sorts. There is death and destruction all around them, yet they soldier on, fighting to save the lives of their patients. Healthcare workers are not afraid of dying, but like all parents, they fear leaving their children without a mother or father.
“What if you and daddy die of Covid-19?”
Last night, my son asked me the question I have been dreading. The thought alone leaves me breathless. My second oldest son will be 10 years old in less than two weeks. He is too young to be asking these kinds of questions, isn’t he? Suddenly, a decade seems far too short to impart all the lessons I need to teach him before our journey together ends.
My children and I have talked about death many times. Those conversations were always about the death of others, like my sister, my brother, and my father, their grandfather, who died only two years ago. I never imagined circling back to this topic so soon.
I tried to reassure my son, in the event of my death, there is a contingency plan in place, for him and his siblings. I reminded him there are never any guarantees and no one lives forever. I acknowledged he would need to help his three other siblings to remain strong, ensure they carry on with their lives, and achieve their dreams no matter what happened to his father and me. Those words were hard to say.
I could not provide the answer he most needed to hear. I could not tell him there was little to no chance I might die. He started to cry and so did I.
A few centuries ago, the world was very different than it is today. Analyzing diaries of children during the 17th Century provides insight into a time when families spoke regularly about death with their children. Nearly 60% of young people died before the age of 16. Children often lost siblings and even their parents. Parents believed making mortality familiar to their children took the fear out of the unknown. There are anecdotes about children expressing their wishes about who should inherit their belongings or pets in the event of their demise.
Obviously, there have been significant changes in attitudes about exposing children to death and dying since then. Today, parents are less likely to view death as a ‘natural part of life’ and instead try to protect children from the reality of death. Bereavement experts and psychologists emphasize the importance of talking to children about death in a frank and informative way. At the same time, experts recommend parents avoid discussing the issue in depth with their children until forced to do so by the death of a close relative or friend.
Far too many healthcare workers are losing their lives to Covid-19 in countries around the world. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing healthcare workers in the U.S. to face their own mortality too. Many on the front lines of healthcare do not have enough equipment available to protect themselves. But due to the generous donations of many members of this community, my staff and I have the personal protective equipment we need for a month or more.
But there is no single piece of safety gear that protects me as I address the real possibility of my death with my son. Any parent’s heart is exposed during that conversation.
What I do know is that twenty years ago, I took an oath to serve and protect my fellow human beings. When I became a physician, I accepted the risks commensurate with my profession. And I accept them now, including continuing to fight against Covid-19.
My conversation with my son served to remind me that while there are no guarantees, I still have tonight to spend with my children. I will make sure not to waste it. My son is not the only one asking dreadful questions. Recently, a journalist asked what it felt like to face the very real risk of contracting Covid-19 while working as a physician and inadvertently bringing the disease home to my family? The harsh reality is that I feel frightened, overwhelmed and uncertain of what the future holds. And I am not alone.