Over the summer, I started to work at an urgent care clinic in Great Falls, Va. It’s a small establishment, made up of two physicians and a handful of medical assistants who rotate in pairs. Each morning, we suit up in blue polyethylene gowns, face shields, N-95s and two pairs of nitrile gloves. Nothing really fits right; the gowns poof up and get caught in corners, the face shields quickly fog over, and the masks and gloves pinch and squeeze. Despite the discomfort, I’m always glad to be there. The stories of my neighbors’ lives travel through the acrylic barrier that separates me from the patients. These brief encounters are nothing less than amazing opportunities to practice empathy and concern. I hope that as the Georgetown University community continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, we hold this same empathy and kindness in our hearts.
The waiting room could easily pass as mundane with its institutional cement walls and dull linoleum floors. Even COVID-19 is old news, and while we wait for a vaccine, we have an effective process for testing many people at a time. Creating new routines amid the pandemic has been challenging for me and the full-time staff. Thankfully, most of the diagnostic test results we receive are negative.
Unfortunately, both the staff and patients can’t expect every result to be good news. People usually come through the door nervously, ask if they should wait in the car since the waiting room is crowded, ask how fast the turnaround for their diagnostic tests will be and ask if we offer rapid testing; we don’t — the doctor often says rapid testing trades speed for accuracy. For the people who bring their kids, the younger ones study us with looks of curiosity and mild distrust.
Some people want to be tested so they can be cleared to catch a flight, visit elderly relatives, enter university facilities or put their worries about a cough at ease. Their names and birthdays are printed out on labels, stuck onto test tubes, packaged with copies of their insurance and lab order and then sent away in a UPS truck that comes in the afternoon. A few days later, the reports are faxed back to the office, and the other medical assistant and I work through dozens of contacts to break the news.
Most of the time, someone might be cleared to fly to Florida, someone else can visit their parents over the weekend and so on. Following through with one’s plans and returning to business as usual becomes, for a moment, a nostalgic exercise of freedom.
All the while, the hope for an uneventful future remains dear. I often look up to the physician on duty to watch how they respond to someone’s agitation and flurry of emotion. The communication skills that work best are listening more and speaking gently. These behaviors demonstrate the power of empathy and transform the clinic from a dreaded place of bodily examination to a space where medical information can be delivered with compassion. Indeed, from observing the transient scenes of people’s lives as they pass in and out of the clinic, one thing is clear: We’re still anxious about what we are — sick or well — and where we are headed, but thank God for the health care workers who aim to soothe rather than simply diagnose.
Regardless of whether or not Georgetown brings more students back to campus this spring, I hope the university will show this same empathy for students as we struggle through this anxiety-inducing time.
Esther Kang is a sophomore in the College. Reconstructing Disability appears online every other Saturday.