Before then President-Elect Biden stood at the Reflecting Pool on January 19, 2021 and lit up 400 lanterns in memoriam of lives lost due to COVID, he succinctly declared “to heal, we must remember”. Like many Americans, I went to a local site that night to pay my respects and mourn. I walked up the street to the National Cathedral in D.C., where church bells tolled for 40 minutes and an ethereal projection read: “Lord, hear our Prayer. 400,000”. I stood there with dozens of others, partially numb by the cold, but also the sobering reality of how much had changed and been lost, in just under a year.
In silence, I closed my eyes and thought of the dozens of patients I’d lost working as a doctor in an emergency room and COVID ICU in Maryland and Texas, respectively. I saw their faces, remembered their names. I also recalled their last moments on this Earth. We did our best to hold their hands, provide comfort from pain, Zoom with family members and offer religious services, but it never felt like enough. As doctors, we are the last person in the room (often with nurses and sometimes a chaplain) as someone passes away. There is no training in medical school or residency to prepare you for the fact that often a patient’s last words and breaths will be uttered around you and not their loved ones. No matter how long I practice medicine, those moments are always humbling, haunting and difficult, to say the least.
As Biden put it so accurately and eloquently in the next line of his speech, “it’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal”. As we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic’s start, my thoughts and remembrances remain focused on ways can we help families who lost loved ones from COVID continue to heal.
First, we should begin the necessary steps to commission a national memorial. Suzanne Firstenberg’s “In America” laid out 267,000 white flags near RFK Stadium this past Fall as an auditory and visual reminder of the scale of loss. Others around the nation have done similar projects to honor the deceased. I agree with news anchor Brian Williams who, watching the lanterns glow that night, stated ‘this is the new Washington memorial, right there in front of our eyes’. As the event was closed off to the public due to social distancing, installing the lights permanently would allow visitors to pay their respects at a location both fitting and honorable to all those we lost. The path from the WWII Memorial up to the Lincoln Memorial currently feels barren and cold at night. Much like the Towers of Light at Ground Zero after 9/11, those lights would bring warmth and illumination amidst darkness — a perfect metaphor to remember and reflect.
Second, as a country, we should commit to provide COVID-19 vaccines to currently eligible direct family members of someone who has died from the virus. It will be challenging to find out who fits in this category exactly, but it is an effort worth pursuing. From a public health perspective, these are high risk folks that we could perhaps save from further illness or harm by vaccinating early. Some family members may have contracted and recovered from COVID or already been vaccinated while others may have died, moved away or may decline vaccination, but for those we can help, we should. County health departments can partner with local hospitals to identify families still reeling from the loss and help the healing process. Perhaps Veterans organizations like Gold Star Families and Team Rubicon could help with this and use their experience and resources to help grieving fellow citizens, in a time of need. This effort is both out of respect to those we lost and a moral obligation to the families they left behind.
If done properly, these two acts can show Americans, from all backgrounds, that our leaders still have the heart and courage to do what is necessary and decent — to provide light and hope even in the darkest night.