A Zoom background caught my eye. It was a photo of my patient, sitting on a boat in what looked like pristine water.
“Is that a real picture?” I asked during a recent telehealth video visit.
“Yes,” my patient said, and he launched into a story about how he had lived on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and worked as a diving instructor years ago. I studied in the Caribbean, and we bonded over the shared experience of island life. We never would have known that we shared a common history, if not for that video visit.
In the past few months, I have had the wonderful experience of hearing patients discuss the art on the walls of their homes, seeing smiling kids running around in the background and glimpsing the internal lives of the people who have come to me for care. Ironically, the physical distance that COVID-19 has imposed upon us has brought me closer to my patients than I could have imagined.
Many are talking about how the pandemic has changed the world in permanent ways. I have been reminded time and again that some of those ways are actually pretty great. Even in these days of civil unrest, we see strength, courage and honor. The news cameras don’t capture humanity, and they don’t capture healing. But both are very much with us at this time.
Yes, coronavirus is contagious, but so is hope. And the hope and humanity I have witnessed from the 13-inch screen of my computer has changed me forever in ways that I welcome. People are, in some ways, more themselves when they are at home. The formality of the doctor-patient relationship melts away, and we become two humans experiencing these historic days together.
In the midst of a pandemic and of unrest, we still see shining acts of kindness and gratitude. At my local supermarket, I struck up conversation with the manager who was recounting the story of an irate woman who had left the store in a huff after being asked to wear a mask. She had angrily knocked over bottles on her way out the door, and the staff was visibly shaken by this interaction.
“Sometimes the worst of people’s nature comes out in stressful times,” she told me, when she noticed my scrubs.
“That sounds intense. I’m sorry that happened,” I said. “Have you noticed any positive behaviors?”
The manager told me about a customer who surprised the staff with handmade masks for every store employee. The customer had been concerned that these frontline workers were being overlooked as they put themselves in danger.
As the manager shared this story, her demeanor softened. She was no longer tense from recalling the behavior of the angry customer. The act of kindness the mask-maker had performed made her hopeful and grateful. That is the power of positivity. It is transformative, and it has been transforming our community despite the uncertainty that surrounds us.
What has been so special about these times is how intuitively and readily patients have been using the power of optimism on doctors. I have noticed that many patients who “visit” me through video telehealth appointments are smiley and excited to talk to me. They are worried about the harm physicians are facing, and they are subconsciously trying to make us feel better.
I don’t remember another time in my practice when so many patients asked me about how I’m doing, how my family is doing and whether I’m getting enough rest. The positivity and compassion have moved me — and it clearly colors our visits.
When my patients detail a beautiful piece of art on their walls or introduce me to their wiggly children during a visit, we both end up feeling closer, healthier and happier. And when a Zoom background transports me and my patient back to the Caribbean, we can both remember the feel of the sun on our cheeks and the smell of the water around us. The conversation lifts us both and gives us hope.
And that beautiful, beneficial hope is more contagious than any virus out there.
Amit Hiteshi is a physician at Hoag Medical Group.