The very first time I shadowed a surgeon during medical school, I walked into the OR without a mask.
I was bleary eyed from not being used to waking up at that hour and the habit had not yet become ingrained.
The feedback was swift and searing. In the operating room, you simply cannot go unnoticed with not wearing a mask. It did not come from one or two people. It came from everyone. I promised myself never to repeat the mistake again.
Having this memory when the coronavirus pandemic struck, I wondered in the beginning whether the solution to enforcing safe practices during the pandemic should be that we, as a society, should be more critical of those who disregard safe policies.
Currently, the country is relatively divided on its stance toward wearing masks in public. Even though the pandemic has erased the distinction between the importance of wearing a mask inside and outside of the OR, the feedback we receive is often mixed. Some people stare disapprovingly, but most simply pass by without engaging.
Yet, at the same time, part of me wonders why we cannot hope instead for a society where people choose to do things not out of fear of punishment, but because they are the right things to do.
This thought reminded me of a time a few months ago, at the end of an operation, when I had almost finished suturing the incision closed. The day was late, and we were all tired in body and mind.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of my stitches had accidentally pierced through the skin and was exposed.
In that moment, I was tempted to ignore it, although fixing it was the right thing to do.
It would require re-doing the whole task and asking the team to stay even later. I found myself beginning to make rationalizations.
Would anyone even find out? It was a tiny error, barely visible to the naked eye. And whether I fixed it or not the incision would probably heal the same.
Then I caught myself in my train of thought and recognized its potential danger.
As an aspiring surgeon, shouldn’t I simply do the right thing, instead of thinking about how not doing it may be justifiable? Isn’t that what you would want, perhaps even demand, from your surgeon?
In reflecting on this question, I see many parallels to how I have felt over the last few weeks when I would feel tempted to leave my home without a mask. I would tell myself the same line of rationalizations, the sweet voice that tells you that it is OK because “it won’t make a difference” or “no one will notice.”
However, now the mindset I hope to carry in wearing masks as well as in taking care of my patients is to do that which I believe is right, not for any other reason than that it is the right thing to do.
If, instead, I continued to rationalize, one day, I could find myself facing the same decision, except the cost of not doing the right thing may not be truly inconsequential. It may not be a stitch on the skin, but rather inside the human heart.
When I step outside of the hospital, the summer weather in Philadelphia has lately been scorching and suffocating. I reach into my pocket to grab my mask.
I used to look around to see whether anyone would notice. But I no longer do.
Jason Han is a cardiothoracic surgery resident in Philadelphia.