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My COVID-19 Story: Helen Sun

A palliative care fellow shares the moments of heartbreak and hope she has experienced during the pandemic.

Dr. Helen Sun is a fellow in the Bi-Campus Hospice and Palliative Care program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Here she reflects on the challenges of providing palliative care amid a pandemic, and the joy she now finds in simple pleasures.

As a young palliative care physician, I thought I had a good understanding of palliative care after completing most of my fellowship training. However, this pandemic has allowed me to experience palliative care on a completely different level and added new meaning and depth to my work in this field.

My mentor describes our work during the pandemic as exhausting but deeply meaningful, and I could not agree more. During this crisis, I’m often asked: How do you deal with deaths every day? Is there some magic formula that you have to stay sane amid this craziness? Do you get used to it because it’s what you are trained to do? The answer is actually yes and no.

Listen to what keeps Helen going as she provides palliative care consultations during the coronavirus outbreak.

As the number of patients with COVID-19 rose in the hospital, the number of palliative care consultations also increased drastically over the past weeks. Although palliative care providers are trained to take care of patients with serious illness, the number of patients who needed our help and the intensity of distress experienced by everyone were something we had never seen before. We often feel extremely drained both physically and emotionally. I go home and pray every day for this terrible pandemic to be over soon.

So how do we deal with it? What is the magic formula that keeps us going day after day? The answer is all of you — patients, families, friends, and colleagues. Every time I share the heartbreaking news that a patient is dying, the response I get from their family is not just sadness but also understanding of the situation and appreciation for healthcare providers. I lost track of the number of times I teared up after a video conference with a critically ill patient and their family knowing that the patient would not survive the hospitalization.

But at the same time, I also can’t count the number of times family members broke into tears of happiness when I told them that they were allowed to visit their loved one in our palliative care unit. I never knew that it is possible to feel heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, but I certainly felt both, many times, during the past weeks. I find strength from the enormous support of my amazing colleagues, family, and friends, and even strangers. I will never forget the 7 o’clock cheering for healthcare workers every day, the stranger on the street who yelled, “Be safe, doc!,” the free coffee offered by Starbucks, and the rainbow that appeared after a storm.

As I start to adapt to this new norm, I find myself deriving pleasure from little things around me, such as seeing my colleagues on Zoom every morning, sharing jokes about being mistaken for another person because of PPEs, and finding a new bottle of Lysol in our office. Even the lines on our faces left by masks don’t look so bad anymore when we consider them proof of our hard work and dedication in this pandemic. In addition, the numerous check-ins and care packages I received from family and friends all over the world, the requests to donate masks and face shields to hospitals, the shout-outs from our daily NewYork-Presbyterian videos, and the meals donated by fellow New Yorkers all make this experience worth it. They may seem like little things, but it is the little things that give me the strength to carry on during this difficult time.