(Cue Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire)

“Donald Trump, Tom Hanks, Sick China, Market Tanks

Travel Bans, Vaccines and Pandemonium…

…Shipments staying off the shores, China keeps its Apple stores,

Testing kits are but a lore, I can’t take it anymore!!

We did start the fire, and we keep it burning, while the world keeps turning…”

For never was a story of more woe…than this of the coronavirus and all that we don’t know.

An excursion to the wholesale market the other day managed to bring about in me every one of the six basic human emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. After a few weeks of dealing with a deluge of information and misinformation about this global pandemic that afflicts us, I needed a reprieve of the daily purgatory that has become this coronavirus situation. 

And so, the hubby and I decided to go grocery shopping, just like we do every week, for the essentials…

Try to maintain normalcy, they say, try to keep a routine…

The wholesale market, a warehouse paradise of unnecessary but satisfying bulk, where free samples traditionally abound to satisfy curiosity and inflict hunger. But that day, no samples, no bleach on the shelves, no bottled water (which we never buy, because we believe in tap water outside of Flint, MI), and most importantly, no toilet paper.

Luckily for us, we’re both Army folks. We’ve roughed it. We know how to wipe our butts with one square of tissue paper and survive on rations.

So what a surprise it was for us to see folks fighting over the last pack of toilet paper, when there were tons of boxes of deliciously aromatic freshly baked goods right beside it. Priorities-apparently we’ve forgotten that in order to poop (and survive) you first have to eat.

Folks with carts full of disinfectants and paper. Only in America folks. Shelves full of food. But nobody cared about the food.

I was quickly reminded of my two lovely visits to Liberia during the height of the Ebola crisis. Scarce resources, social isolation, and discrimination, chaos and fear. 3rd world country dealing with 1st class infectious disease, trying to do the best with what little they had. Turns out 1st world countries quickly turn 3rd world in similar situations.

At the end of the day, we are humans, and our responses to things that threaten our lives and livelihoods are well scripted into our DNA. Viruses don’t discriminate based on socioeconomic status, and having money doesn’t make you smarter about how to deal with them.

And so I felt anger. Anger at people cutting lines, yelling and cursing at each other, acting in a disrespectful way to the overworked employees who were trying their best to prevent riots over Clorox. Common courtesies that apparently have become uncommon in the midst of this adversity.

And then came the disgust. Actually, it was disgust at myself for feeling like I was somehow better than everyone else at this moment. A slight air of condescension as I watched everyone freak out around me, while I was able to keep my cool. Turns out, I’m not better than anyone else. I’m just better trained. And the reason for this is the dozens of hurricanes that I had to live through while growing up in Puerto Rico. When you’re faced with the possibility (and reality) of not having running potable water or electricity for months…after that kind of weather phenomenon, you learn how to prepare, obtain and ration the true essentials-water, instant coffee, powdered milk, and rum.

I also felt disgust for what I am experiencing as a medical professional on a day to day basis since this debacle started. Everyone turned “expert” in pandemic management, mostly as an excuse to justify unwarranted opinions and as vehicles for self-aggrandizement. Reminds me of a quote that a former colleague of mine told me during one of my first days as a White House doc- “fake it ‘til you make it”. I mean, I know a part of medicine is acting like you know what you’re doing. That’s part of why it’s called the “art of medicine”. If medicine was acknowledged as the performing art that it can be, I’d be an Oscar winner. I tell ya’-best thing my mom did was put me in acting classes when I was in high school. Disgust…yes. Because everyone in medicine is all of a sudden an expert, but nobody knows [email protected]##$t. And because we don’t know [email protected]##$t, and barely know how to wipe our own asses, why the emphasis on the toilet paper?

And then came the fear. A terrifying thought that we are doing this all wrong. Counseling people without knowing the correct answers, guesstimating treatments and protocols for the sake of concocting a response, simply to appease the fears of others, while potentially jeopardizing the health and well-being of our communities. Failed leadership at all levels pushing for a consensus response where none exists, obviating the fact that genuine leadership doesn’t search for a consensus, but rather molds it, as MLK once said. But you can’t cut corners if you’re going to do good molding, and sadly for us, the Oval Office has no corners.

Oh the fear of the ubiquitous long lines, rivaled only by those at Disney theme parks that are now ghost towns. Fear of the possible quarantines and mandated social distancing that will further bolster America’s standing as the most depressed people and country on Earth. Too late to put Prozac in the water system, which I argue is the only way to truly make America Great Again.

And then, behold! A moment of happiness as we finally got to the front of the line and paid for our groceries, followed by a cup of Dunkin’ and the purchase of a scratch-off lottery ticket. Because this is America, after all. And at times we might feel fear, but we always rebound from adversity and make time for life’s favorite vices. And just as we might not be winning the big lottery jackpot right about now, we might still be able to scratch up a little luck.

And as we drove home, the sadness ensued. A declined offer to wine and dine with friends, out of respect and observance of the social distancing recommendations. Because there’s no worse kind of medicine than the hypocritical kind; it’s not the obese cardiologist telling you to lose weight, or the smoker pulmonologist telling you to quit vaping. It’s actually the infectious disease doctor this time telling you to wash your damn hands. I almost dissented, as thoughts of delicious grilled steaks and brews momentarily substituted those of diseased droplet particulates floating about all around us, waiting for an opportune nose to climb into. But I snapped out of it, and instead opted to exercise social distancing appropriately, in the company of my husband, the dogs, a super-sized McDonald’s meal and a cigar…and Purell.

And finally, a few days later, surprise. A return to the same, but very different wholesale market. This time, a scant number of patrons, with mostly empty carts of essentials. No fighting, no yelling. People wearing masks and gloves, cleaning their cart handles and disinfecting their hands, deliberately walking at a safe distance from each other. I smiled for the first time in 2 weeks, when someone extended a thank you to one of the employees for restocking the shelves, and wished him an early night so he could go home and #StayHome.

And on the way out, while passing a sign for reserved hours for the elderly posted on the door, and another sign reminding people to shop reasonably, we grabbed a case of Coronas, and alas, still left without toilet paper.


Dr. Jennifer M. Peña was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Yale University in 2004, and was commissioned in the United States Army in 2008 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is Board Certified in Internal Medicine. Dr. Peña’s Army experience includes multiple tours of duty, to include a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom rendering medical care to detainees in the Detention Facility in Parwan, and from 2014-2018 at the White House Medical Unit. She is the first Latina to serve as a White House Physician, and the first Latina and female to occupy the position of Physician to the Vice President. Dr. Peña ended her service to the Army on January 2019. She currently works as Medical Director for Oscar Health and Global Executive Medicine, and as concierge physician for INOVA VIP 360. She lives in Falls Church, VA with her husband and 5 dogs.

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