SOME people have described the current unprecedented global siege caused by coronavirus as the third world war (WW III) which seers like Nostradamus foresaw. Some call it the Armageddon cited by several religious faiths.
Other sources have even gone farther to dub the COVID-19 pandemic a novel biological warfare in which there is no war front, no frontlines, no known weapon and no defined boundaries. But all sources are unanimous on an issue: the executors of the war are the group of professionals we call ‘the medics,’ and their armaments are provided by the pharmaceuticals and others in the larger global health industry.
In that sector, the lead operators are the physicians. The doctors are the generals and field marshals in the COVID-19 pandemics war. True to the war nature of the pandemic, many medical persons, from doctors to nurses to paramedics, have contracted the virus and died like a lot of their patients. So, when we will have to tell the full story of this plague after its havoc, we will tell the tale of some medics who died in it as fallen heroes just the way we remember dead soldiers and veterans (vets) of past wars.
As Easter gift, one of my cousins, Chike Odikanoro, sent me an electronic season’s greeting card and a short film via WhatsApp. The film was so engaging and inspirational that I had to watch it several times before sharing it with some friends.
Subject of the recording is a Nigerian physician, based in the United States of America (USA). The obviously stressed young doctor, after working on several shifts, stole some minutes his choking schedule to exhale his stress on a piano he has, permanently mounted in his living apartment.
Still clad, head-to-toe, in his medical protective gear – gloves, cap, overall, dangling stethoscope-on-the-neck et al – the doctor decongested all his emotions on a grade ‘A’ performance of two Igbo gospel songs on the keyboard. His singing was flawless despite signs of stress.
His prowess in the piano was even better. He sang and roamed through the keys far better than many professional musicians. His ad libs and remixing of the popular numbers as well as the prayerful chants he infused between the lines of the lyrics were equally thrills to behold for me. I wondered whether I was beholding a professional musician or new-age pastor dressed in physicians’ costume.
I had to reach out to my cousin who confirmed that it was a young Igbo doctor who recently graduated from the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State before migrating to the USA for greener pasture. His name is Dr. Michael Igwe.
However, what struck me more was not his roots but his message and what the whole performance which he recorded by himself in a lonely sitting room (possibly his residency apartment in a US hospital) communicated to me about him.
The film started with him switching on something, maybe on a video camera mounted on a tripod and clearing his throat repeatedly as he speaks which hints of tiredness or lack of sleep. The doctor speaks to kick-off the film:
Alright. Good morning… Emm! How are you guys doing? Emm! I just got out of work and I am so tired… I’m going back again. When I got home this morning, I was praying and asking God: “Should I keep going? As I stayed praying, the Lord gave me a song. A very simple song… When I was singing it as I prayed the song is (he began singing the Igbo number) ‘N Ga Enyere Gi Aka’ (meaning “I will help you”)
In the song, the singer hears a reassuring voice of God encouraging him that He will guard and protect him once he remains upright and harbours no fear. As the young doctor sang with a stress-marked voice which he managed like a professional, I sensed a burden being exhaled in his emotional performance.
The video piece got me into pondering the weight of challenge the young physician’s shoulder. I used him as an example of a typical doctor working in frontline of the medical field during this pandemic.
Watching him sent me imagining how many bad cases he may have faced in this COVID-19 time – from emergencies to deaths to even fear for his own safety and that of his loved ones.
From the initial song, the doctor waltzed into another Igbo gospel number, ‘Okwukwe m Di N’ime Gi Onye na-eme Mma’ (meaning ‘My faith is in you, the one who does good things’). Soon after, he veered into speaking in tongues. He ended the 10-minute-long film with three short but revealing sentences.
His words: “There is no fear. There is no fear. I love you all.”
From the last expression, it was discernable that there was fear but the young man, possibly in his late 20s or early 30s had causes for fear but his faith in God is what holds him together and gets him going.
His case reminded me of another young doctor and writer who like seeking my view when he has such need. He works in one of Nigeria’s federal isolation centres. After weeks in the national call-up, he informed me of his “very challenging engagements.” At the end of every chat, we concluded on the need for him to also remember to take his safety seriously.
There is a currently trending WhatsApp voice note in which two nurses dwell on the availability or absence of personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety measures in their different hospitals. Some aspects of the audio are funny. Some are not.
The summary is that medics are human beings too.
Just as veterans can return from war with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doctors and paramedics also have their trauma in this kind of situations. As noted in the BBC article, ‘Coronavirus: Why Healthcare Workers are at Risk of Moral Injury’ US researchers have discovered that doctors are likely to have moral injury – a trauma wrapped up in guilt.
Being humans, they can be overwhelmed by gory situations that they may have moral injuries when things go awry. This could be especially with young ones when they see more deaths or pains than their emotions can cope with. This can also occur when a person “commits, fails to prevent or witnesses an act that is anathema to their moral beliefs.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs website likens it to psychological trauma involving “extreme and unprecedented life experience”, that can lead to “haunting states of inner conflict and turmoil”.
When a medical person finds himself in a haunting position and he does not have enough materials to work with and save the patient or protect himself, the moral burden may erupt.
Researches into moral injury is now hinting of how such injuries can impact people in all walks of life, especially healthcare workers in the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the BBC article cited, one doctor told the BBC team that the stress was intense. “Seeing people die is not the issue. We’re trained to deal with death… The issue is giving up on people we wouldn’t normally give up on.”
They dubbed it, “young doctors being asked to play god”.
A physician, Nöel Lipana, who had had such an experience in foreign medical tour, explained the challenge to BBC reporters as very deep and disabling. “A person doesn’t just take the gloves off afterwards without that loss affecting their moral fibre, their soul,” says Nöel Lipana, who was left with a moral injury from his 2008 Afghanistan tour. He now works as a social worker while promoting better understanding of moral injuries both in the military and beyond, which includes staging art performances and a forthcoming documentary film, Quiet Summons.
Evidences of that abound around us. Medics are increasingly cringing under the wait of COVID-19. We have to support them, encourage them and give them requisite strengthening. We have to pay the medics in this current warfront well and give them sensible health insurance. Else, we are digging the graves of most of us. The worst our society can do is to leave them with a sense of helplessness.