Reflections of an ICU Doctor

By: Ian Barbash, M.D.

Reflections of an ICU Doctor

Driving down the cul-de-sac, I see the multicolored lights of our Christmas tree shining through the living room window. I pull into the garage, park, and turn the keys in the ignition. The engine falls silent, and I sit quietly for a moment. Not wanting to contaminate my home with invisible coronavirus particles that made it through the protective equipment I wore during my day in the ICU, I leave behind my hospital shoes and scrubs in a plastic bag. Barefoot and in my underwear, I tiptoe across the cold cement floor and through the kitchen door.

My three little boys are getting ready for bed, and our oldest son asks “Daddy, did you not wear clothes to work?!” I smile softly and walk past him to the master bathroom to take a shower.

Waiting for the water to heat up, I ponder recent days’ events, which are beginning to blend in my mind. I think of the man who months earlier had been hiking and traveling the world but was now dead from COVID-19 after weeks in the ICU. And the man who years earlier survived a heart transplant, only to cry out with fear today as we prepared him for intubation. Speaking to his fiancée, I promised her we would take care of him. But I could not promise he would survive.

I step into the warm shower, letting the water flow over my hair and stream down my face, mixing with the tears. I hope the soap and water wash any remaining virus away. I cannot infect my family with this sinister, deadly disease. But water cannot mitigate the feeling of looking into a dying man’s eyes as I tell him COVID-19 ravaged his lungs. Of holding his hand and trying to provide some hope that he might survive to get off the ventilator, while sensing in my gut that he will never speak to his family again. I can scrub my skin clean, but the virus has indelibly marked my soul.

It is all just so overwhelming. As the water pours down to the tile floor, I sob with grief and seethe in anger at the scale of avoidable human suffering happening in my ICU and across the country and the world. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, grandfathers, and grandmothers—dying in staggering numbers.

My boys are now in bed, the youngest asleep but the older two awake and snuggled under their covers. I kiss them on the forehead, wishing them sweet dreams. I am grateful for the feeling of their small, warm arms reaching up for a hug.

Later that night, I fall asleep with merciful exhaustion, hoping for a better tomorrow.