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I wish, I wonder, I worry: How COVID-19 Makes Saying the Right Thing Feel So Wrong

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Being a frontline doctor and staunch social distancing advocate in the time of COVID-19 can sometimes put you in an awkward position. Especially, if you’re surrounded by artists, small business owners, and other non-salaried non-essential loved ones. Sometimes it’s worse than awkward. It threatens decades-old relationships. It would be nice to always stand my ground and say things like “I worry that it’s too dangerous to the other nursing home residents if you visit your dying grandmother” or “I wish your thriving business wasn't suffering but it’s for the greater good”. But just like the COVID-19 deniers that evolved to understand my perspective, I am being made painfully aware of the deleterious effects that social distancing is having on so many others. And it makes those things very difficult to say.

Before I became a physician, I was a singer-songwriter in a pop punk band that was mediocre at best. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to have some semblance of financial and accompanying emotional stability, I should start by attending college. Long story short, I left music and became a physician. I was jealous at the time (and I’m proud now) of my artistic friends who were able to turn their talents into successful careers: A recording studio. A popular alternative karaoke bar. A clothing boutique. A vegan restaurant. But none of those careers came with a salary or health insurance or any other useful guarantees. My life choices, on the other hand, guaranteed that one day I would be privy to the blood and guts of a global pandemic. A pandemic in which I would be armed with knowledge to help people who needed but didn’t want it. Like someone trying to rescue a flailing bird entangled in a barbed wire fence.

One of the main reasons I chose the specialty of hospital medicine was because my social circle included no physicians. "If I want to help as many people as possible, I need to stay general", I decided. It did not take long to realize that people like to be helped, but do not appreciate unsolicited medical advice: “Don’t forget to tell your doctor you need a SCREENING CT FOR SMOKERS! Say it that way! They’ll know what that is.” Or “you shouldn’t take antibiotics that are just lying around the house”. And eventually, “PLEASE do not leave the house. By leaving the house you could be directly responsible for your or someone else’s death”. And as true as that is during a viral pandemic, the advice was not well received. Especially by those whose livelihood depends on people leaving the house to patronize a bar, or a boutique, or a recording studio, or a restaurant.

It is impossible to count the number of times I’ve used the “difficult conversation” skills I learned from the paragons of palliative medicine at my medical school. My infatuation with the “I wish, I worry, I wonder” technique spilled over into my personal life, finding its way into breakups, makeups, and debates. Then recently, I thought it might be more impactful to direct social distancing messages away from the #MedTwitter echo chamber and face a non-medical crowd instead. I wrote a song to make the message palatable, maybe even entertaining. But that message landed on two distinct sides of a large opaque wall. A wall impenetrable by sight, sound, or statistics. On one side, my colleagues and partners in social distancing advocacy. On the other, my non-scientific friends and family struggling with their own conflicts between evidence and immediate survival. Between knowing what is right for the greater good and desperation to pay bills or visit dying family members. Conversations ensued that “I wish, I wonder, I worry” did not help.

We are still swirling around in the thick confusing slurry of this pandemic. Moving forward, I must continue to advocate for social distancing as the way to save the most lives and currently our only exit strategy. But I wish it did not have to come at the expense of so many livelihoods and last words whispered alone in empty rooms. I wonder if there is a way to safely return to normal soon. I worry, for my loved ones and millions others like them, there is not. And I've yet to find the right words to deliver that message.

Here are some organizations helping those struggling with food or financial security during this crisis.

Sweet Relief COVID-19 Fund (funds available to be used specifically for musicians/music industry workers affected by the Coronavirus)

The National Domestic Workers Alliance’ Coronavirus Care Fund (for qualifying home care workers, nannies and house cleaners)

One Fair Wage Emergency Fund (for tipped restaurant workers, delivery drivers, personal service workers)

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