On March 11, 2020, I was in the OR for what I didn’t realize at the time would be the last day for three months. It seemed like a normal day except for one small detail: All the masks disappeared. The nurses were able to find a small supply in a locked cabinet so that we had enough to finish the day. This was the start: one mask per day unless visibly soiled to preserve the mask supply. The masks we had discarded between cases were now a precious resource. Walking into the hospital, we found hand gel, mask dispensers, and a new sense of fear.
Explore This IssueJuly 2023
On May 11, 2023, the public health emergency in Massachusetts came to an end, aligning with the federal public health emergency. For most, lives had already returned to near normal outside of the dramatic increase in remote work and more casual work attire. For healthcare workers, it allowed us to remove our masks in the workplace for the first time in three years if we felt safe to do so.
When I walked into work that day, I used the hand gel and grabbed a mask out of the dispensers. It felt like any other day. When I arrived in clinic, I was greeted by one of our medical assistants, who was smiling. It took me a minute to realize that she didn’t have a mask on. “Dr. Lindsay,” she said, “we no longer have to wear masks in the hospital!”
We all have our stories about the early days of COVID-19 and how we tried to convince ourselves that this would be a two-week hiccup, after which we would get back to our normal lives. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
In Massachusetts, there was no elective surgery for three months, a restriction with enormous consequences for otolaryngology. This was a departure from most mass casualty events, where surgeons are at the front and center of the action to care for the injured. In some regions, our colleagues became intensive care unit docs, using medical knowledge that hadn’t been used since residency training.
Surgeons are accustomed to wearing a mask in the OR, but wearing a mask in clinic was a significant challenge at first, and it left me feeling oddly out of breath. The uncomfortable feeling improved over time, and we changed the way that we interacted with patients to adjust to the new normal. Now, with the removal of masks, clinic feels normal again. I can see the faces of my colleagues, some of which I’d never seen, as they had started working with us during the pandemic.
The OR has been an interesting adjustment as well. I now must remember to remove the mask in the PACU. I now need to consciously think about when it’s required, but I’m certain that this will feel normal again soon. Two things stand out from this experience: One, it’s remarkable how adaptable we can be in the face of an emergency, and two, I hadn’t realized how much I missed seeing the faces of my friends, colleagues, and patients.