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The Arts and Medicine
May 21, 2020

Oedipus and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Pediatric Surgery, Department of Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri
JAMA. 2020;323(22):2231-2232. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.8594

Last week I faced the task of telling brand-new parents that their 2-lb premature son needed emergency surgery. The conversation was all the more difficult because, surgery or no surgery, odds were he would die. They agreed to the procedure with one request: that we allow his grandparents and uncles the chance to meet him first. They didn’t want their son to die alone.

Ordinarily, I could facilitate such a reasonable request. Even in normal times, the hospital isolates patients from home, family, and community, so this seemed like a small sliver of grace. Yet even this was now precluded; in response to the ongoing pandemic, our hospital has instituted a necessarily stringent visitor policy.

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    2 Comments for this article
    Isolation During the Plague
    Michael Gross, MD | UCLA
    Thank you for these thoughts, Dr. Antiel. It is heartbreaking when we are forced to keep family members apart due to contagion. It is necessary to protect our community and it confirms our respect for one another in our polis. This essay reminded me of the people in America separated from their family by brutal and hateful incarceration. For those citizens, we have invented our own plague. Our culture has a history of locking people up who are not a substantial threat to the polis, and who might be better off, and more likely to reform, with their families. This unnecessary isolation is more tragic and probably much more harmful - to them and to the culture - than the rational rules of social distance.
    Greek Tragedies can Teach even in Modern Times
    Anatole Besarab, MD | Stanford University
    A moving piece on the isolation of patients we create in those who are most ill and need of emotional comfort. Although I had learned of Oedipus, never knew the entire story. Thank you for pointing out the lessons from the full story.

    We should pay special tribute to the dedicated nurses in our ICUs who provide the care, empathy and love that is sorely missed by patients when family time is limited to 10-15 min at a time.