The Abolition of Man in the COVID ICU
Jonathan M. McGee, RN, BSN, CCRN, ACNP(s) Duke University
Student Essay - Honorable Mention
The COVID pandemic magnified the paradigms of modern critical care, bringing our assumptions to their extreme ends and natural conclusions. As a nurse in the extreme isolation and suffering of a COVID ICU, I grew more and more distressed at the form of care I was providing. Have we have built systems of thought that predispose me to sin against my own patient? How does a medical gaze violate her dignity? What might an alternative to our current practice look like? C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man speaks a prophetic word about the relationship between scientism, value, and how we treat our fellow man. Reflecting on this work helps give language to the dis-ease I feel as a caregiver in an aggressively scientific setting. I have bought into a medical gaze that is reductive and only has room for my patient’s humanity insofar as it serves their biology. As we lean deeper and deeper into a mechanist imagination, we need to count the cost. The cost is that my patient is not just devalued, she has become a thing incapable of value in and of herself. She is only valued insofar as she values herself or she is valued by her relations. This system of value broke when we couldn’t have visitors on the unit. Suddenly, my patient only had value insofar as I valued her. The sheer volume of suffering under my care made it impossible to keep up the project of jumping between biological and humanist imaginaries. What might an alternative look like? I reflect on the birth of my daughter. I see how differently I was treated by her care givers than I treat the loved ones of my adult patients. They valued her connectedness to us, her parents, in a way that we denied to our desperately isolated COVID patients. An honest reckoning and exploration of our values, guided by Lewis’ reflection on our systems of knowledge, will yield practical and philosophical ways that we can heal our own imagination and be rejuvenated by a new experience of caring as provocative and tender.