Perhaps it is my exposures at a small liberal arts college in northeast Iowa; perhaps my readings of ancient works during my world literature class as a junior in high school; or perhaps it was due to just having a day in clinic again, face-to-face with patients after a long drought. Whatever it was, I was drawn to a brief and wonderful piece, “Oedipus and the Coronavirus Pandemic,” in JAMA.
Our job with PracticeUpdate is to distill noteworthy articles from scientific journals into succinct, readable content. Not today. This is one piece that defies distillation and is for all primary care (and other) clinicians to read. It will take no more than 5 minutes, and your time will be repaid in full. Reflecting on the human touch could not be more vital as we experience the collisions of a healthcare crisis, an economic crisis, and a social crisis.
After weeks of telemedicine and distancing, I was back in the clinic last week. My schedule spanned from a newborn with hyperbilirubinemia and anxious parents, to a complex, elderly person with severe joint pain, needing clearance for a joint replacement; with patients complaining of ear pain, chest discomfort, and urological issues thrown in. Despite the barriers of face mask and shield, I had to examine my patients, to palpate, and to touch.
Dr. Antiel describes the barriers to providing complete and humanistic care amidst the pandemic. In doing so, he invokes the poet Wendell Berry and Sophocles’ story of Oedipus, set in Thebes as it was wracked by plague. He muses, “Perhaps one way to prevent medicine from becoming the enemy of its own kindred… is to ensure that love, which wills the good of the other, is present—even in a pandemic, even when supplies are short.”
As we continue to face the challenges of COVID-19, the resulting economic hardships and racial injustices, consider the words of Jacob Bronowski, spoken from a pool outside the crematorium at Auschwitz: “We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”1
Sometimes our stories, our art and our literature provide the wisdom that we so desperately need. Dr. Antiel—a pediatric surgeon at Washington University—has tossed out a lifeline to all of us. Grab on.