I have always fancied myself a bit on the lazy side for a physician. Sure, I called it “work-life balance” or “prioritizing family,” but secretly I always suspected I just don’t like to work as much as my colleagues do.
My decision to do an infectious diseases fellowship actually came at 2 a.m. in the intensive care unit during my last month of residency, when I knew with some certainty I never wanted to be in the intensive care unit at 2 a.m. ever, ever again.
Infectious diseases is a specialty without procedures, and with very few emergencies that can’t be handled over the phone. That’s not to say it doesn’t get busy, but it’s not the sort of busy where I had to skip a lot of meals.
And then, COVID-19.
We didn’t even have a name for the novel coronavirus when it started dominating my life in January 2020.
In late 2019, I had accepted a medical directorship in infection prevention, a remarkably mundane position, doing quality improvement projects in the hospital setting.
But when cases started to appear in Washington state and Chicago and California, I became the obvious expert to design our own plan for what we would do if this dreaded virus made its way to Arkansas.
No one ever said, “We’re going to need you to answer calls 24/7 for months on end.” If they had, I might have negotiated a more palatable schedule.
But by virtue of being “novel,” every single scenario seemed to need an expert making the decisions.
There were the ridiculous calls early on (“My aunt ate at a Chinese restaurant; we think she needs to be tested.” “My neighbor rode on a bus in Chicago with Asian people, and then came to my house, do I need to be tested?”) but also high-consequence situations when a delayed response might put dozens of people at risk.
It seemed reasonable, preferable even, that I be involved with these midnight decisions about what counted as an exposure, who needed the “good” PPE, who deserved a call to the CDC (when that was the only way to actually get a COVID-19 test).
I didn’t feel like any great martyr when I worked through scheduled vacation time over spring break. The ski lifts had shut down anyway; the trip was canceled either way.
Then, forfeiting our beach vacation at the beginning of June felt like a no-brainer (because I had written the hospital employee travel restrictions myself).
I have gone months without vacation, like most other Americans, so it didn’t register at first that this season of work was not simply a long stretch between travel plans.
Without asking my permission, COVID-19 turned me into a workaholic. Even after a 14-hour day or an 80-hour week, I constantly felt like I had not done enough.
There were always phone calls, texts, and emails waiting for my reply.
A constant sense of unfinished work would follow me to bed each night. I almost welcomed the 2 a.m. phone calls because they gave me a break from the imaginary problems that kept me restless all night.
Weekends became a time to catch up on overflowing work, rather than to take a break from work altogether.
Despite exhaustion and an increasingly tenuous mental health state, I told myself to stop whining, to be grateful for this role in the pandemic, when so many have lost their jobs and lifestyles, not to mention the thousands upon thousands who have lost their lives or functional status to the disease itself.
It started to feel decadent to wander away from Wi-Fi for a few hours, outright indulgent to put my phone on “do not disturb” overnight.
Even as I spent every waking hour trying to fight the pandemic, I slipped into the ranks of its sufferers.
So, I am trying to embrace, for today anyway, the Labor Day paradox of celebrating work with a day of not-work.
In taking a moment of not-work, I can see the futility of attempting to “complete” work.
I can see my suffering counts as suffering, just like the suffering of joblessness, social discord and illness sweeping our nation right now.
My grandmother was an activist for workers’ rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and as a child I could not wrap my head around what that meant.
Every adult I knew was a worker; to fight for “workers’ rights,” wasn’t that just fighting for everyone?
She did not bore me with rhetoric about “the Man” or American aristocracy. She would simply tell me, “We were fighting for all the people who work together as a team. There are people who have enough power that they don’t need a team. We are fighting for everyone else, the people who have to stick together.”
I have to remember I am one of people who needs a team.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Labor Day. The previous articles in the series are:
Don’t Let Anxiety Fatigue Claim the Victory | Elizabeth Denham Thompson
Have Churches Pursued Justice for Laborers? | Bill Pitts