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A Lonely Illness

2020 Temple Health Essay Contest Winner

January 25, 2021
Mali Jurkowski

Mali Jurkowski

March 30, 2020: The trees in front of the hospital continue to bloom, but inside is a sense of stillness. The lobby is empty. The gift shop is closed. All visitors are strictly banned. There are no cheerful voices left to distract from the beeping of ICU machines. And it feels like an invisible monster is roaming the halls, threatening to infect both patients and healthcare workers alike. We are hyperaware of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I find myself worrying about the other patients, too. Those with heart failure and cancer and infections and blood clots who wished they didn’t have to come but did nonetheless. What about them?

Louise came in because her dementia became so severe that she could no longer take care of herself. She was confused, neglected, and malnourished. I was relieved when our social worker found Louise’s sister, who was devastated to hear the news and wanted to help. She was ready to jump on the next flight to visit Louise. But due to the visitor restrictions in place at hospitals throughout the country, she could not come. Louise sat alone in her room without family or flowers or cards—without all the surrogates of joy that distract from the sadness of illness. Down the hall from Louise is another patient, Alice, who lost 20 pounds and carries a new diagnosis of cancer. Alice is a mother to two loving daughters who want to be by her side to hear the results of the CT scan and the biopsy. But instead, our team broke the news to Alice’s daughters over the phone. “What are Alice’s wishes for the end of her life?” we asked. “Would she want aggressive measures? Does she prefer to be comfortable?” The questions that doctors struggle to ask in person felt infinitely harder as they landed in silence on the other end of the line. There were no compassionate nods to exchange, no hands to hold, no tissues to pass.

It's been nearly a year since I stood at my medical school graduation and took the Hippocratic Oath. I echoed the same words that so many generations of doctors spoke before me. But I could have never imagined what this year would bring, or the challenges that we would collectively face. Now more than ever, I understand that “warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug." Healthcare workers around the country are rising to the call to provide empathy during a time that is uncertain and chaotic and unpredictable.

COVID-19 has created a pandemic of loneliness. The visitor restrictions, while prioritizing the safety of patients and healthcare workers, are immensely difficult for patients and families. It is hard to fathom that this is our new reality.

To the families who cannot be here today, we are thinking of you. We are keeping your loved ones safe. We will not let them suffer alone. You can count on us.

*Patient names and identifying details have been omitted.
Modern Hippocratic Oath: 

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Mali Jurkowski, MD, Internal Medicine PGY-2 received the third place prize for her essay, A Lonely Illness, in the 2020 Temple Health Essay Contest.