Survivor’s guilt & showing love

Brian J. Santin, MD - Guest Columnist

Survivor’s Guilt

My brother was initially disappointed when I broke the news that my wife and I and our 27-pound labradoodle, Whitney, would not be coming home for Christmas this year.

This wouldn’t be the first time I missed opening presents with my niece and nephew, as I had always seemed to draw the short straw during my residency and fellowship for covering the hospital on December 25th. But it would be the first time since I made a promise to my family that I wouldn’t miss this holiday eight years ago.

It’s not going to be easy, and opening presents via Zoom just won’t feel the same.

You might ask why would I break this promise, why would we not just drive a few hours north, sit around the tree and tear into the wrapping paper together?

It’s the other side of the coin that gives me pause … significant concern.

You see, my 71-year-old mother has asthma, and we are all concerned that if she were to contract a viral respiratory illness such as COVID-19, there is a good likelihood she would not fare well.

Now my brother, his wife and their two children are able to self-quarantine for 10 days prior to ol’ Saint Nick sliding down the chimney which will significantly reduce the likelihood that they could spread an infection like COVID to my mother and father. In fact, I believe that with a dedicated period of 10 days self-quarantine and maintaining distancing even when together, that celebrating the holidays could be done safely this year.

Unfortunately, as a physician providing care to patients on a daily basis, I don’t have the ability to self-quarantine for 10 days. I don’t suspect many people reading this will have this option, either.

I figure if I can’t self-quarantine for 10 days, then the possibility of me giving my mother a potentially deadly illness is what gives me the most concern.

We need to realize that many people actually have COVID-19 but feel completely normal; they are what we call asymptomatic carriers of the illness. If my wife and I are asymptomatic carriers and I spread this illness to any of our family members — much less my mother — and they died … honestly, I’m not sure how I would be able to handle this.

Survivor’s guilt is the name given to this condition. I’ve laid awake the past few months at times thinking about this and how so many unfortunate good people in this world are now faced with living with survivor’s guilt.

Through contact tracing, it can often be established how and who transmitted COVID infections to others – loved ones and strangers alike. It isn’t fair to anyone. Despite “feeling normal”, someone who is infected with COVID-19 is capable of spreading the virus to others without even knowing it until it is too late.

When I explained why my wife and I and Whitney were not coming home in these terms to my brother – he got it. He too saw the real possibility of being the one who, in essence, could play the leading role in a Shakespearean deadly drama.

And with that, he thanked me for pointing out the reality of COVID-19 and why, as a healthcare worker, I’m going to do my part not to hurt the ones I love.

I ask that you consider doing the same. It’s one more holiday to be apart, I get it, but I also don’t want it to be the last holiday I spend with my family.

It’s not just for me; it’s for them why this Christmas we’ll be Zooming and celebrating the fact that we are all healthy.

Please help keep everyone in your family and ours healthy this year and stay home for the holidays.

On behalf of your local Clinton Memorial Hospital healthcare workers: We thank you.

Brian J Santin, MD FACS FSVS RPVI, is Clinton Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer and a vascular surgeon.

Brian J. Santin, MD

Guest Columnist