‘I really want to give up’: San Jose doctor on feeling disillusioned, distraught during COVID

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Health care workers are burnt out, frustrated, and angry after a year and a half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Nivedita Lakhera is an internal medicine physician at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, and she spoke with KCRW during the early days of the pandemic in April 2020. Today, she says she feels enraged over the state of the country and many people’s refusal of vaccinations. 

“It's very hard to come to terms with the fact that while the whole country witnessed more than 600,000 deaths, we are still questioning [COVID] as a disease that can kill, and [they’re] refusing the vaccination, which is the obvious solution,” she tells KCRW. “Every time a patient refuses vaccination and I have to talk to him or her, I literally feel like I'm carrying 600 pounds of weight in my hands.” 

Lakhera says that when faced with those situations, she feels like she doesn’t want to do her job anymore.

“I really want to give up. The only thing that keeps me going is the virtues from my family. Otherwise … 90% of me just doesn't want to care anymore. But yet, that 10% of you keeps wanting to push.”

It’s also the lack of support that makes her and co-physicians feel helpless and alone. That emotional burden has led to health care staff feeling like they’re disposable. 

“I work in a clinic where patients still decline vaccination and that leaves us feeling like ‘who's on our side?’ Tell me who's on our side? Who is on the side of physicians? The population is not on our side. Half of the country doesn't want vaccination. Policymakers are not on our side. Administration is not on our side. Who's on our side?” 

In physician Facebook groups she’s a part of, Lakhera says she’s heard stories about doctors who are considering moving to other countries such as Australia or New Zealand. “We spent half of our life going to medical school residency. Literally half of your life you spend in becoming a physician, and you have invested … hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt.”

She adds, “There is a massive feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. … They have bills to pay. So many of them are married with kids. They have a house and they're totally disillusioned, distraught, and full of despair.” 

After experiencing the mountain of pandemic-induced stress, Lakhera says she’s given herself two years to decide whether she’ll stay in the medical field. 

“So many physicians are already leaving medicine because of physician abuse or health care abuse and not being paid enough. It's almost like they're asked to manufacture time out of nothing. They expected so much for so little that so many were ready to leave. But they had this hope inside of them that they're making a difference. But there comes the pandemic, and they feel totally alone, that no one cares, no one is on their side. ... They are ready to jump ship.”

She adds, “The only reason I'm staying in medicine is because of my parents, because of my brothers, sisters, and friends that have instilled in me ‘community over self.’ But community over self cannot last if you have no self left after a certain point.”