But as I continue to open the Facebook group page each time a bell alerts me that a new post has appeared, I realize that doctors have to readily concede that we don’t always know what to do next, that we still need to figure out the best way to care for patients.
More than a century ago, Dr. William Osler, a founder of Johns Hopkins who revolutionized American medical education and training, said, “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” He understood that medicine is not exact. It requires asking questions and openly expressing our concerns and our doubts — a surrender of confidence in our own knowledge, an admission that we may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory.
Today, doctors are fortunate to be able to do this in online forums that span the globe. We are able to freely admit what we don’t know about this new virus, to try to translate what our colleagues in Italy and around the world have learned to the hospitals where we currently work.
I also get to gauge how my fellow doctors are doing mentally and emotionally, how we’re coping with the uncertainty of what’s to come. Many compare their experience to being sent to the front lines of war, in some cases unarmed as supplies of masks and hand sanitizers run low. Others ask if they should move out of their homes so they don’t potentially expose their families to infection. We wonder how the two critically ill E.R. doctors in Washington and New Jersey are doing.
Under normal circumstances in the emergency room, before this pandemic, I admit that I often felt too busy to consistently make eye contact with my colleagues as we rushed about to care for our patients. But since the coronavirus outbreak, we all somehow manage to look at one another.
With only our eyes showing behind our goggles and face shields and the rest of our expressions covered by masks, my colleagues and I are still able to communicate without saying a word. Sometimes, we exchange looks of bewilderment and confusion. Other times, I see the same fatigue and frustration reflected back at me. Occasionally, I glimpse my own fear in their eyes.
Most often, though, I see the conviction that we will get through this. We may still be trying to determine the specific clinical prescription to follow to most effectively care for patients critically infected with the new coronavirus. But we will continue to treat the sick as we have always done, even in the face of great uncertainty.
Helen Ouyang (@drhelenouyang) is a writer, doctor and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University.