Images I Can’t Unsee

Jul 23, 2020 | Dealing with COVID-19 | 0 comments

Sure, there are happy images from my clinical days—before I left primary care for a writing career—like the sheer joy of birth when suddenly another live being entered the room; the relief on a patient’s face at being heard and helped; the grateful smiles from patients whose suffering was reduced by my presence and expertise. But given human nature, it’s the negative images that have more sticking power. They are the ones that pop up unbidden, like a debt collector that won’t be put off.

What’s right at the surface these days, what I can’t unsee in the Covid-19 pandemic, are the images of the reality of intensive treatment and suffering—what a code looks like, what it sounds and smells like, how the body of an elderly patient would bounce up and down on the backboard, ribs cracking with every compression. What an ICU room feels like, with its constant alarms, the unending sound of the ventilators, the multiple lines going to multiple orifices, the minimal human connection and preponderance of machines. What happens to a body after days and days of ventilator dependency. How difficult the process of weaning from ventilator support can be. And afterwards, what rehab is really like, when patients try to bring their bodies back from dormancy.

Today, when I see the current, real-life images of crowds without masks, scores of people wanting so desperately to have life as they remember it that they disregard the boundaries of what’s known to be safe, I can’t unsee the reality of suffering and death. I can’t unlearn what I know from my microbiology and epidemiology classes about virus transmission or what I understand about sterile technique and how one flawed move will contaminate the surgical field.

The images of real suffering that I can’t unsee and the lessons I can’t unlearn now direct me to minimize in every way I can the risk that I will become infected and spread this disease to others—causing suffering somewhere along the line to people I love and people I will never know. Honestly, I am finding it challenging to figure out how to maintain these standards, when others I’m close to don’t feel the same urgency to do so. They don’t know the images I can’t unsee.

What I’m finding helpful is regular conversations with others who share those images. They help me live by my priorities and share tips that help me with the risk-benefit calculations that fill my days in this unprecedented time. With them, I am not alone in my sense of urgency and the sacrifices I make to minimize the risk of infection and spread.

How do the images you can’t unsee drive your choices and behavior in this pandemic? How are you navigating the calculus of safety in your personal and professional life? How are you dealing with the moral conflict when you witness less-than-safe behaviors? What are you doing to cope?

Photo credit: National Cancer Institute on Unsplash


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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