Self-isolating in a hotel room between 12-hour shifts on a COVID ICU is truly DOWNtime.
While on the unit I’m focused and busy. At the hotel, my mind has too much time on its hands. Its favorite way to while away the hours until the next shift is to torture me with a hyper-awareness of every tight breath, sneeze, or tickle in my throat. It’s back in the hotel when the worry and anxiety show up. Keeping me company while I lay in bed, failing to day-sleep.
Earlier this week, I dragged myself out of bed and went for a jog around Mets Stadium. I read somewhere that making your bed in the morning is somehow good for your mental health. So I did that too and promised myself I wouldn’t get immediately back in it.
There is a CRNA staying in the room next to me. Joey from Jacksonville. We arrived on the same flight. I can hear him facetime his kids through the walls. I haven’t told him. Having their muted conversations makes my room feel less empty. Like turning on the TV while cleaning the house. It’s nice to just hear their voices.
I’m trying to learn how to do a handstand. I’m envious of the handstands I see in the online yoga classes I do. They scare me a little, so I use the wall as a backstop. Joey hasn’t complained about that noise yet.
There is breakfast every day in the ballroom. They’ve set chairs up six feet apart, four per table. Sometimes Joey and I have breakfast together. Loud conversations consistently supported by the same three pillars; personal financial concerns, nurse to patient ratios, and deaths from the previous shift. Runny scrambled hotel eggs. We put our masks on the table while we eat, like macabre centerpieces. It’s all so surreal.
We had a shared day off early on here. We ventured to a nearly deserted Times Square. I saw a Grubhub runner on a motorized unicycle zip down Sixth Ave in all black motocross gear. Later that evening I walked past a homeless man playing 99 Red Balloons on a melodica. It’s like being inside Bladerunner.
I haven’t turned on broadcast TV in days. I can’t handle the news anymore. My Facebook algorithm fills my feed with stuff that either makes my blood boil or makes me cry. I watch a lot of The Great British Bake Off on my laptop. I’m up to season 4 and now know the five basic types of pastry: Shortcrust pastry, Filo pastry, Choux pastry, Flaky pastry, and Puff Pastry.
I find the stress here sneaks up on me. On the unit, there is an air of machismo and detachment. Understable coping mechanisms that no one acknowledges. Even back in the hotel, it doesn’t light up my frontal cortex in a big Hollywood-moment mental health alert! Instead, it is just harder to get out of bed. Harder to work on the handstands. I can’t focus on reading the book I brought.
All of this proves no matter how hard my conscious cortex tells itself everything is OK, the little reptilian limbic system knows this is fight or flight territory. I picture it deep in there, burrowed into my brainstem, smelling danger. Unable to run.
I’ve found entire new genres of YouTube videos that are the equivalent of staring into a lava lamp. Last week I watched two hours of videos about hand pulling La Mian noodles. Today I spent an equal amount of time watching videos of folks carving wooden spoons.
My brain must be yearning for something so simple, tactile, and yet fulfilling.
I want to sit by a fire and carve a spoon. It might be my highest calling. Taking a piece of once-living tree and urging it into a tool that can feed a baby. I can’t really think of a more beautiful act right now.