Dispatches: When “Back to Before” Isn’t Enough – Oakland, CA

by Jade Amargo Verdeflor.

I work in healthcare as a consultant, where my team’s focus is on patient experience. That is, how the care one receives in a medical setting makes them feel. The surveys that inform much of our work asks the questions that get at the socioemotional aspects of healing at a hospital, such as “How well did your doctor listen to you?” and “How often did nurses treat you with courtesy and respect?” These questions help us understand, and consequently improve upon, healthcare quality in a way that goes beyond explicitly “clinical” outcomes.

The role I play in my day-to-day work, which I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do from home, informs where a lot of my focus and energy have been directed during the current pandemic. These past couple weeks, I’ve combed through countless (and by countless, I mean definitely countable… probably around 70 or so) articles, blog posts, and webinars about providing healthcare amidst COVID-19. I even had the opportunity to directly collect feedback from a few of our patients through a virtual focus group, where they shared what would make them feel safe if they had to come into a medical office or hospital during this time, whether for COVID-related symptoms or otherwise.

Through this work, I’ve been able to learn how healthcare is being shaped by and adapting to this moment, and because of this, I’ve internally grappled with broader questions about how other aspects of society are, could be, and should be reacting to this moment. In my formal job, I have to think about how receiving health care during a global pandemic must make patients feel. And outside of this, I’ve thought about how living and existing amidst a global pandemic must make people feel.

For me, I have felt overwhelmed, or inspired, or downtrodden, or proud, or defeated. Sometimes, one feeling at a time, and other times, all at once. I’m sure that I’m not alone in feeling so. (Though with shelter-in-place orders and increased isolation, it’s been challenging to confirm this at times.)

Sunset at Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong.

In all this, I still have hope. The patient advocates we spoke with in our focus groups shared what would make them feel safe, even confident, coming into a hospital during COVID-19. We asked what we as an organization could do to alleviate their stress and worries around health and safety. Many of them shared an understanding that there will be “a new normal” and that we can’t simply return to how things were before. Many also shared that they wanted our organization to set expectations around this new reality. What should we, as patients, do differently when going in? What are you, the healthcare organization, going to do differently for us? It was so life-giving for me to hear firsthand from these members who were empowered to raise their voices. Yes, the expectations will be different, and yes, we need to be led by our members when we set these expectations. The top-down approach, no matter how well-intentioned, will always miss (and at times, intentionally neglect) the genuine needs of those who are most impacted. That’s why I loved sitting in (again, virtually) on these conversations⁠—patients already know there will be a new normal for healthcare and are ready and willing to take part in constructing it.

But why stop there? We already immediately know that the pandemic has had a direct impact on our daily lives and our collective sense of safety. For those who have gotten sick or lost loved ones, the feelings are that much more raw.  (My genuine and deep condolences to those who have experienced this.) Yet, for those outside of the 3+ million with this experience, we are not immune to feeling down and disheartened during this time. Many feel that their liberties are being infringed upon. Many feel the negative psychological impacts of social isolation. Many are struggling to meet their basic human needs. There’s definitely a spectrum of how directly the burdens are felt, but they are still felt globally, nonetheless (with the exception of the ultra-rich, who are able to use their capital to get pretty much anything they need… shudder). And because we know the struggles and trials we’re facing, we should be able to be the ones shaping the new normal for society overall.

We should feel empowered to imagine what a system that is constructed by us and works for us can look like. Allow yourself, for at least a moment, to think without barriers. Even if it feels “crazy” to imagine, think about what that system provides. Does this system you’re imagining have to include an economic recession literally built-in to occur every few years? Does it have to include unpayable amounts of debt just to earn a college degree? Does it have to require people to work under life-threatening conditions just to barely get by? Does it have to rely on crowdsourcing to pay for medical bills and even funeral costs? Does it have to include rent increases so high and so often that people can no longer find a place to call home? Does it have to include police forces so strong and unchecked in their power that unarmed citizens are killed without consequence?

Painted during shelter-in-place by Jade Amargo Verdeflor.

It may feel overwhelming, or even impossible, to imagine a place without these things. I acknowledge that it’s difficult, especially now, to think of something other than what you’ve been used to for so long.

And yet, even if you think it’s impossible, what does it feel like to imagine a new normal

Just as our organization’s patients shared what would make them feel safer, we too should feel empowered to “tell” those in power our desires and demands. I put tell in quotation marks because this goes beyond just literal speaking and talking. It involves more than voting, or lobbying, or policy writing, or any one of these things alone.

And I will be honest. I don’t know exactly how a healthier, more equitable, more compassionate new normal will be achieved, but I do know imagining it and believing in its possibility is a crucial first step.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” 

Arundhati Roy

Driftwood at Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Author’s Bio:  Jade Amargo Verdeflor is a writer and filmmaker based in Oakland and originally from Southern California. She is passionate about the intersections of health, storytelling, and equity.

Editor’s Note: Dispatches is a series of articles/posts written to reflect this maddening pandemic moment where the horrors of inequity and greed are fully exposed in counterpoint  by the generosity and sacrifice of frontline workers, nurses, doctors and scientists.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Hing on May 9, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Yes. We come out fighting. We organize now.

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