In early February, I got the call I’d dreaded for months: my 82-year-old grandfather, Charlie Law, had died. I’d tried to prepare myself as best as I could; Grandpa had Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and he had been in physical and mental decline for about four years. Still, I hadn’t seen my grandparents in person for two of those years because of the pandemic.
Once the initial waves of shock and sadness had washed over me, I was surprised to find I was angry. Losing my grandfather was inevitable, but it felt as if the disease that finally took his life—COVID-19—was not. Although my grandfather was vaccinated and boosted, his dementia had confined him to a nursing home, which meant that he was at the mercy of the assisted living facility and the surrounding community to protect him from the virus. While I’d accepted that my grandpa didn’t have long to live, and I knew that he was suffering, I’d hoped (naively, maybe) that he’d slip away in his sleep. COVID-19 had robbed him of even that.
Shortly after Grandpa passed, I asked my dad, Dr. Kevin Law—a doctor specializing in pulmonology and critical care at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in New Jersey—about how he is coping with losing his father to COVID-19. He has helped lead his hospital’s response to the pandemic through surge after surge for the last two years and has treated about 1,200 patients with COVID-19 at the hospital.
Grandpa getting COVID and suffering was the thing I was hoping wouldn’t happen.
KEVIN LAW: I had an educated guess that he was going to get a life-threatening infection this winter: either a urinary tract infection, pneumonia, or COVID. I wasn’t there, but I really don’t think he suffered. Maybe that’s my mind playing tricks on me, but I’ve seen patients like this. When they’re very infirm, they become unconscious and go quickly.
I know my mom had some anger about it and felt like he hadn’t been protected at the nursing home. But I’d like to think that the institution did its due diligence to protect the patient. Unfortunately, this latest iteration of COVID is very infectious. If you’re susceptible, I don’t think there’s any escaping it, whether you’re out in public or in an institution.
Has being on the front lines of the pandemic made it harder for you to cope with Grandpa’s decline?
KL: I don’t think I was as present for my parents as I would have been ordinarily, and that that was frustrating. I’m very busy, they’re in another part of the country, and at times it’s been risky to travel.
I was surprised that you worked on the day that Grandpa passed. lt must have been hard for you.
KL: For your own mental health, you have to learn how to separate work, play, and personal life. I compartmentalize. You have to be able to do your job. You learn over time—as hard as it is, sometimes—to not let it interfere with your professional functioning. If I did, it would be very difficult to function.
A lot of people said I should have taken the day off, I should have taken a week off. I certainly contemplated that, but it would have just been way too much for the people I work with. They would have been overwhelmed.
I have pretty complicated feelings about the circumstances of Grandpa’s death, because like you, I expected he would pass anyway. But it just feels bad that people didn’t try harder to stop the virus from spreading.
KL: Over time, I learned not to waste a lot of energy on people’s behavior that I can’t change. I try to work on it with individuals, and I do get frustrated at times, dealing with individuals that don’t have a good explanation for why they’re not getting vaccinated. The fact that some people are going to be resistant to it is just human nature, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.
I do see people who, even though they’re not doing well, are still happy with their decision that they weren’t vaccinated, which is a remarkable thing to me. Or they’re willing to accept their fate, such as it is.
How have patients been treating you recently at this point in the pandemic?
KL: I see a lot of impatience. I see a general lack of understanding. I don’t think they have as much empathy for us when we’re fatigued or working hard or late or running behind. I think people were very sympathetic at first, and I don’t think they are anymore.
They have to understand that a lot of us are still in that same position. We’re still working much harder than we normally would. Even though most of us are vaccinated, we’re still putting our livelihoods and our health at risk. We’re really still working for the public and individuals. If they have some anger or frustration over this whole thing, it shouldn’t be targeting medical workers.
How do you deal with your own anger at people for not getting vaccinated? How do you take care of yourself?
KL: There are times when I have empathy fatigue: when I don’t feel as empathetic as I would normally feel for a sick, infected patient if they’re not vaccinated. I have plenty of empathy for people who did get vaccinated but got sick in spite of it.
Anger is a strong word. It’s more frustration and the feeling of impotence over the situation at times. The time I most feel it is when we’re very busy in the hospital. I’ve seen 30 hospitalized COVID patients in a single day, sometimes 35. It wears you down. Maybe my experience helps me to handle the pain of my dad’s death a little better. And it helps minimize my anger and frustration.
I think that some of the anger that people have about the virus, and the restrictions that have been placed on them, are somehow transferred onto physicians, nursing staff, and hospital workers. When I feel like somebody is targeting me or displacing their anger, this is something that I can call upon to kind of defuse that situation. I say, “Listen, I lost my dad to this as well. So on some level, I understand what you’re feeling.”
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