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Disposable Hero

for Elizabeth Fernandez, MD [ June 25, 2020 ]

We mourn our own on Facebook live, a tribe
in plastic coveralls and goggles, waiting
for the next call as we say goodbye via cell phone, 
none of us more corporeal than the next. The only real 
body, our former wellness guy, lowered into the ground. 
Two men stand beside it, neither able to touch each other.

At the hospital, I talk to my sister through layers 
of plastic, the crackle of the bag against my face, 
the constant sweat slick of mask on mask on goggles
on plastic bags on phone cover and she still manages 
to deliver a smile to me. When I am smiling, she hears it
in my voice, the last muffled part of me still public.

Two streets over from my house, people crowd 
tiny tables along the curbs, the humid air between 
them no thicker than my arm and they stew in it 
as they bang their pots and cheer for the doctors, 
their leper heroes, every night at seven. Bang the pots
and screw the masks. They swim in their steam
of togetherness, the virus like blooming bee balm, 
the funeral wreath that wraps around their heads
then winds to the next person and the next.

Sometimes, people call us to collect their nearly dead, 
to witness what they cannot. The patient with the DNR
delivered by ambulance. We watch her drown
in the virus, rise to the surface again and again, 
try to break for a breath only to watch the pressure
of her own lungs push her down. How fiercely
the body will rise, even against itself. Zippered
into our plastic suits, we watch as someone’s loved
one gasps and stutters to death. A morphine drip
can lessen pain, but not forestall the final suffocating 
wave, the darting eyes still looking for help. I watch 
in tears and my resident turns to me, and says, 
I didn’t think these things affected you like this. 

At home, my child grows, learns to sit up, to squawk
and babble. My husband and I must decide if I am to be 
banished, the face at the window, the smile in the screen. 
Square mommy, her voice slightly slower than her 
mouth, her arms a phantom, less real than the stuffie 
in the crib. He is too young, I say. He is so young.

I used to use my hands to calm people as I told them, no, 
nothing more could be done. Now, I use my hands
to intubate the dying. I use my hands to count
this week’s dead, the call times of the deceased. 
I use my hands to call families and explain
what we have done and what we could not do. 
I have counted up from one ICU to four. I have counted 
the number of co-workers lost, the days in the same PPE, 
the people too scared to touch me. I count a few I call friends 
who I call when I can’t remember who I am beyond 
plastic and gloves and call times and stripping in the basement, 
then laundry, then shower, then Lysol, then deciding 
what parts of who I am are disposable and to whom.


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