IF WE STARTED THE YEAR 2020 with audacious hopes for perfect vision—seeing more clearly—we were completely blindsided. Our hoped-for year of clarity became a year of befuddlement. A year of new beginnings became a year of death.
When I was treating patients with. the coronavirus in New York City last spring, one of the greatest challenges was being fully present with my dying patients. Why? The story, unfortunately, was a familiar one during the early days of the pandemic. Shortages of personal protective equipment forced doctors to limit the frequency and duration of patient contact.
Concern over virus spread meant most visitors could not come to the hospital—even when death was imminent. There’s no question that the prospect of dying alone from COVID-19 grieved patients and families. But it also caused great distress for medical professionals. No one should suffer and die alone. On this point we’ve achieved clarity. Human beings instinctively comfort the sick and accompany the dying. It’s human nature.
I recall the time a patient of mine, the painter Maurice Sapiro, was hospitalized. Mr. Sapiro is the type of guy who is impossible not to love. An elementary school music teacher by profession, he had secretly cultivated a talent for painting. In his 80s, his work was discovered by a New York gallery, and sales of his paintings made it possible for him to provide in perpetuity for his disabled adult son. His was a story of the American dream—a story of creativity, passion, perseverance, and hope.
I was devastated to learn that Mr. Sapiro lay unresponsive in a hospital bed after falling and hitting his head. I went to check on him. He was widowed, and apart from his son, I knew he had few others who would look in on him. I wanted to be sure that he would not suffer alone. I wanted to assure him of my solidarity.
His son was keeping vigil at the bedside when I arrived. We talked for a few minutes before I turned to Mr. Sapiro.
Armed with the knowledge that researchers have been able to detect brain activity in seemingly unconscious patients with brain injuries, I spoke to Mr. Sapiro. It didn’t matter to me whether he could respond.
He was hard of hearing, so I spoke loudly but gently. I assured him that I would check in regularly and help his son with medical questions. I told him that I would accompany him through this. I would not abandon him.
And then something funny happened—he woke up! No one was expecting it. But he awoke, groggily acknowledged my presence, and then sunk back into his pillow. After that he made a steady recovery. When I wrote to him recently to ask his permission to tell this story, he replied: “Be sure to mention that after being unconscious for three days, the first thing I saw when waking up was your smiling face.” Years later, he is still painting.
The cruel irony of the coronavirus pandemic was that the very efforts to prevent virus spread—keeping visitors out of the hospital—may also sometimes have hastened death. Countless stories have emerged in recent months of dying patients who started to recover once their families were permitted to visit them in the hospital. The isolation was killing them. Visitors helped them recoup. We should take heed.
We human beings are relational creatures. We thrive in community and wither in quarantine. Even the most comfortably introverted among us at some point craves human contact. I spoke with several friends during the height of the stay-at-home orders who somewhat sheepishly told me they ran unnecessary errands simply to see other people. If we crave human connection when we’re healthy, we need each other all the more when we’re sick.
Not every illness will end as happily as Mr. Sapiro’s. Some of us won’t bounce back quickly. Some of us will succumb to the diseases that plague us. This is the reality of human finitude. But, in order to die well, we must live well. And we live best in the context of the give-and-take of nurturing communities.
The year 2020 did, in fact, blindside us. But it did not leave us completely in the dark. The pandemic made it all the more clear that living and dying is a team sport. And all of us need to keep a list of people for whom we intend to keep an eye out—and check in with them regularly. We need assurance that family members or friends have got our backs. And we need to commit to looking out for others.
Eventually we will defeat the coronavirus. But the challenge for all of us will be to determine who’s still in quarantine—who among our neighbors lives in isolation with no one to care for them—and decide to do something about it. The challenge is to be the one to care.
This essay was first published in Spirituality & Health.