It’s a little past seven in the morning, the end of my shift. I’m an obstetrician in a Midwest suburban hospital. The nurse in charge sees me leaving and waves.
“Hey, you’re our good luck charm,” she calls out. “When are you coming back?”
I wave back, but the truth is that I don’t know. I am the doc-in-the-box, there for emergencies, precipitous deliveries, the one to start urgent cesarean sections on private patients or assist on non-urgent ones. I take elective calls about three to five times a month. Some nights in the hospital can be busy, but for the most part, the shifts here aren’t bad. Last night, I was able to sleep right through.
The pavement in the covered walkway leading away from the hospital’s side entrance is decorated with cheerful words in pastel chalk: “Have a good sleep,” “See you tomorrow!” “Thanks for all you do!” “You are the best!” “We (heart) you.” Who did all that? I ask myself. Kids? Not allowed, not these days, not with the virus around. Some spry and good-hearted souls from the community more likely.
On my drive home, I plug my phone in and listen to Krishna Das chant the “Hanuman Chalisa,” a folksy version on Spotify, which I dare say I like more than some classical versions. The Chalisa is a forty-verse Hindu devotional to Hanuman, the beloved monkey God and servant of Rama; I’ve come around to Hinduism late, a tourist in my own land, with hippies teaching me how to be Hindu again. Chanting the Chalisa with devotion is protective, I read somewhere. Because of this insidious virus, I need all the help I can get. I haven’t memorized the whole thing yet, but I’ve been listening in my car and I have Krishna Das’ deep baritone thrumming in my head at other times, the words all out of order. The Chalisa has a life energy, a charge, a frequency, a vibration. But folks recite it too quickly; I recently saw an animated clip on YouTube which claimed to be the fastest version. Why would you do that? It needs to be savored and relished and imbibed and chanted with heart.
The road ahead of me is dead empty. It’s Easter Sunday in the middle of a pandemic. My spiritual acuity has increased lately, and I think I hear Krishna Das say “COVID” at around the thirtieth verse. He’s chanting in Sanskrit, but I swear I hear it. I make a mental note to look up the Chalisa’s wording on Wikipedia later. I tell myself Hanuman knows all about this sickness, that he wants me to hear it that way, to pray for an end to this scourge. Okay, I tell him, I hear you.
As I drive, I fall deep into Krishna Das’ chanting, his deep, gravelly voice accompanied by the harmonium as he sings through to the fortieth and last verse before it starts again, shuffles into an endless loop, pre-programmed by yours truly. Suddenly, I start bawling. The tears fall freely, and I let the sadness pass through me. Why am I so emotional? I’ve had an easy time of it so far. I’m not a front-liner. I don’t intubate COVID-19 patients. I’m OB. So far there’ve been no issues over PPE. We’re not getting slammed like other places. That’s not it. It’s something else.
What if I get a COVID Patient in labor? Will I be so concerned with donning and doffing protective gear that I will fail to be present with the patient? Usually, I rush into deliveries, but afterward I love to linger awhile, to bask in the mother’s Madonna-with-child light as she nurses her newborn. Will I have to give that up?
The virus constantly diverts my attention. It’s an intrusion, an agitation, a harassment, a disturbance, a dirty piece of viral RNA floating in the air and clinging to surfaces, the stealthiest of stealthy enemies. Now I must don and I must doff, put on goggles and gloves and shoe covers, remembering to remove them afterward with the utmost care, using up time and precious brain cells which I normally would have devoted to my patient’s bedside. I will miss talking to my patient, sharing exchanges and smiles for a bit before leaving her with her newborn. This is what I grieve.
The Chalisa continues and this time I chant along with it. The blue sky stretches out before me on the highway going east, puffs of clouds scattered about, one shaped just like Hanuman, son of the wind, holding the medicinal mountain as he leaps across the ocean. I see my patient’s eyes just then, deep and spacious like the sky, and I know: Hanuman knows all about it.
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