By Jennifer M. Weiss
We are a few weeks into our pandemic lifestyle. Physicians have been on the front line of this pandemic crisis. I am in a unique role as an orthopaedic surgeon. At the beginning of our preparations in March, one of my friends said, “if anyone thinks that orthopaedic surgeons are going to be caring for patients with Coronavirus, they are sadly mistaken.” As correct as he was, our duty to lead from where we stand is immense.
When the CDC and the Surgeon General have recommended that we postpone elective surgery, we acted quickly to transition. We did not want to expose our patients to COVID-19. We did not want to use materials that were in short supply, like masks and protective gowns. We understood that the children of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, medical assistants, x-ray technicians, and orthopaedic technicians were home and in need of care. Our resources were and are short. We had to be ready to use these resources for the anticipated waves of sick patients. Our elective surgeries, like joint replacements, ACL reconstructions, shoulder arthroscopy, and carpal tunnel releases were postponed.
We converted as many patients as possible to virtual visits, whenever safe. Social distancing is crucial to flatten the curve of spread. We quickly understood that it was necessary to avoid patients and healthcare professionals coming into mass contact to address issues that were neither urgent or emergent. Most patients received this information with grace and gratitude. People want to stay safe and to keep those on the front lines safe.
Some true colors are shining through during this time. Support from so many. People were grateful that we worked long hours to do the right thing. Keeping public health and the greater good in mind, many have risen up, leaned in, and are supporting one another.
And some are not. This has not landed for some of us. I had a patient’s mother yell at me in the early days of “stay safe at home” for the 2-day wait to see her child with a non-emergent problem. I received this without the compassion and empathy that I usually conjure. I am sure this woman was scared and frustrated, perhaps short on toilet paper, and daunted by the lines around the block at the grocery stores. She was likely overwhelmed with the mixed messaging coming from the press and our government. She was absolutely trying to advocate for her child, and she was certainly not able to see that we were far from business as usual in the orthopaedic clinic. I cannot blame her, but I did not have the ability to offer her what she needed‒ patience and understanding.
Before the clear directive for lockdown was ordered, my 13-year-old daughter had a sleepover planned with a new friend. I do not know the friend’s parents. I should have canceled, but I felt bad for the girls and wanted to let them have one last hurrah before lockdown. In the middle of the night, my 10-year-old daughter woke up with a fever. I did not call the friend’s mother. I made the call to keep my sick daughter in our room away from the friend. This was not the right call. The friend’s family was correctly upset. All I could do was apologize, and this was received with much-appreciated forgiveness.
That same weekend I went to my favorite Sunday yoga class, usually filled to the brim. There were five students, and a teacher dealing out everything I needed‒ hard work, deep breath, sweat, and focus. I was sure even this outlet would shut down within the week, and of course, it did.
We continue to be so raw. As parents. As doctors. As people. Our leaders cannot get it right when there is no precedent in contemporary times. A partner texted me, “our leaders are waiting for word from other leaders, and it all feels like trying to do a U-turn in a big rig on a cul-de-sac.” I shifted to asking for forgiveness instead of permission. I did what seemed right. This is not the time for rule following, as there are no rules. I am going back to my Hippocratic Oath. Just trying to do no harm.
To all of my tribe in medicine, let’s be patient with ourselves. Let’s support one another, and let’s remember that we have exited a world of patient-led care and “customer” service in medicine. As we do what we believe is right, we may not have consensus. The moral and ethical barometer that comes with the art and practice of medicine cannot be dictated or scripted in these times. Let it be said that we tried to do what was right with courage and even ferocity.
Jennifer Weiss is an Orthopaedic Surgeon specializing in Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine. Growing up as the daughter of an orthopaedic surgeon, Jennifer saw first-hand how male-dominated the world of medicine is. Throughout medical school, she encountered few female students and fewer women that were aspiring to become orthopaedic surgeons. From the start, it has always been her goal to help aspiring women to become successful surgeons — and to inspire women to enter the field of surgery and not be intimidated by this largely male profession. Dr. Weiss actively writes and speaks on the topic of women in medicine. She has served on the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Board of Directors, and is currently the Communications Committee Chair. She teaches communication skills to physicians, surgeons, and other health care clinicians both within her large integrated health care system in Southern California and within the Orthopaedic surgery societies. Her research is widely published, and she is an active leader and speaker within the medical community nationally and internationally.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.