In early February, I got the call I’d dreaded for months: my 82-year-old grandfather, Charlie Law, had died. I’d tried to prepare myself as best as I could; Grandpa had Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and he had been in physical and mental decline for about four years. Still, I hadn’t seen my grandparents in person for two of those years because of the pandemic.
After the shock, sadness and anger that overwhelmed me initially, I found myself angry. Losing my grandfather was inevitable, but it felt as if the disease that finally took his life—COVID-19—was not. My grandfather, who had received his vaccine and was well-vaccinated, was now in a nursing home. This meant that the community and assisted living facilities were unable to provide the protection he needed. While I’d accepted that my grandpa didn’t have long to live, and I knew that he was suffering, I’d hoped (naively, maybe) that he’d slip away in his sleep. COVID-19 had taken his grandpa away from that.
Shortly after Grandpa passed, I asked my dad, Dr. Kevin Law—a doctor specializing in pulmonology and critical care at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in New Jersey—about how he is coping with losing his father to COVID-19. He has helped lead his hospital’s response to the pandemic through surge after surge for the last two years and has treated about 1,200 patients with COVID-19 at the hospital.
Grandpa getting COVID and suffering was the thing I was hoping wouldn’t happen.
KEVIN LAW: He had a very serious illness. I was able to predict that it would be either a COVID, a urinary tract infection or pneumonia. I wasn’t there, but I really don’t think he suffered. Maybe that’s my mind playing tricks on me, but I’ve seen patients like this. When they’re very infirm, they become unconscious and go quickly.
I know my mom had some anger about it and felt like he hadn’t been protected at the nursing home. But I’d like to think that the institution did its due diligence to protect the patient. This latest COVID iteration is extremely infectious. If you’re susceptible, I don’t think there’s any escaping it, whether you’re out in public or in an institution.
Has being on the front lines of the pandemic made it harder for you to cope with Grandpa’s decline?
KL: I don’t think I was as present for my parents as I would have been ordinarily, and that that was frustrating. I’m very busy, they’re in another part of the country, and at times it’s been risky to travel.
Surprisingly, you managed to get work done on the same day as Grandpa died. You must have had a difficult time.
KLTo maintain your mental health you must be able to distinguish work from play. I am a compartmentalist. It is essential to be able do your job. You learn over time—as hard as it is, sometimes—to not let it interfere with your professional functioning. It would make it very hard to function.
Many people suggested that I shouldn’t have taken the day off. I ought to have taken the week off. Although I had thought about it, that would have been too overwhelming for my coworkers. You would be overwhelmed.
I have pretty complicated feelings about the circumstances of Grandpa’s death, because like you, I expected he would pass anyway. But it just feels bad that people didn’t try harder to stop the virus from spreading.
KL: Over time, I learned not to waste a lot of energy on people’s behavior that I can’t change. I try to work on it with individuals, and I do get frustrated at times, dealing with individuals that don’t have a good explanation for why they’re not getting vaccinated. The fact that some people are going to be resistant to it is just human nature, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.
I do see people who, even though they’re not doing well, are still happy with their decision that they weren’t vaccinated, which is a remarkable thing to me. Or they’re willing to accept their fate, such as it is.
What have you seen from patients in recent times during this pandemic?
KLObserve: There is a lot of impatience. A general lack of understanding is what I perceive. I don’t think they have as much empathy for us when we’re fatigued or working hard or late or running behind. I think people were very sympathetic at first, and I don’t think they are anymore.
They must understand that there are many people still stuck in this same place. We’re still working much harder than we normally would. Even though most of us are vaccinated, we’re still putting our livelihoods and our health at risk. We’re really still working for the public and individuals. If they have some anger or frustration over this whole thing, it shouldn’t be targeting medical workers.
Is it possible to manage your anger about people not being vaccinated? What can you do to take care of your body?
KL: There are times when I have empathy fatigue: when I don’t feel as empathetic as I would normally feel for a sick, infected patient if they’re not vaccinated. Even though I was vaccinated, my empathy is great for those who have become ill.
Anger is strong. It’s more frustration and the feeling of impotence over the situation at times. The time I most feel it is when we’re very busy in the hospital. I’ve seen 30 hospitalized COVID patients in a single day, sometimes 35. You feel exhausted. Maybe my experience helps me to handle the pain of my dad’s death a little better. This helps to reduce my anger, frustration.
Some people feel angry about the virus. I believe that this anger is transferred to nurses and doctors. If I feel someone is targeting or trying to displace my anger, I know that this is something I can use to help defuse the situation. I say, “Listen, I lost my dad to this as well. So on some level, I understand what you’re feeling.”