This week, a patient came in to see Dr. Thomas Nguyen with a tale of the pandemic so heart wrenching that the veteran Ohio pediatrician broke what he calls “my no-hug rule.”
Throughout his 15 years of practice, Dr. Thomas Nguyen has scrupulously avoided any physical contact with his patients that could conceivably be misconstrued.
And with COVID-19 came an added concern that proximity might transmit the virus.
“From about mid-December through the end of January, we were seeing a ridiculous number of cases,” he told The Daily Beast.
On Tuesday, a 15-year-old patient arrived at his private pediatric outpatient clinic in Hudson, the town made famous last week by a much-tweeted video in which the mayor suggested that ice fishing leads to prostitution.
The teen had been coming to the clinic since he was a boy. And Nguyen practices medicine in the way of the old-school pediatricians who are part of the patients’ lives, addressing a kid’s emotional as well as physical well-being.
“He comes in just to catch up with me,” Nguyen told The Daily Beast.
The last time he visited, for a check-up at the beginning of the school year, the boy had been with his mother.
This time, the teen was on his own. He had an N95 mask, which Nguyen later noted is unusual in an area where people are more likely to wear surgical or cloth face coverings, if any at all.
“We get to talking and it comes up he’s a little bit stressed out,” Ngyuen recalled, “So naturally, I have to follow up on that. He said his mom recently died. He was vaccinated. She wasn’t.”
The son would almost certainly still have a mother if she had gotten the jab along with him at a local pharmacy. And his particular loss had been made all the more devastating by the circumstances he now described to his pediatrician.
Back around the start of the most recent COVID surge, the teen had gotten into an argument with his mother that grew so heated his sister called the police. The responding officers determined that the mother had an outstanding warrant and they took her into custody. She is believed to have caught COVID in jail.
The teen told Nguyen that his mother was then hospitalized and he had not been allowed to visit her because of COVID restrictions. Nguyen does not work at that hospital, but he surmised from what the teen said that the earlier strife may have given the ICU team further cause to be wary.
“The people that were involved in his mom’s hospital care were not the people that were most likely to give this young man regular updates on how she was doing,” Nguyen said. “They weren’t telling him what was going on with his mother being sick. And then finally she was just gone.”
Nguyen noted that if the mother was intubated, she would have been unconscious and beyond her son’s touch and words.
“What could he have said other than to hold her hand and say, ‘I’m sorry?’” Nguyen told The Daily Beast. “If even he wanted to. Those are details that I’m not privy to.”
But it was clear to Nguyen that it would have made a big difference to the teen if he had at least known what was going on.
“The thing he seemed most upset about was the lack of communication,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen understood that the teen was likely experiencing crushing guilt along with grief, but he was a good enough physician to understand that he could do more for his patient by just listening than by offering platitudes.
“I think one of the mistakes we make in medicine is we try to give them an answer,” Nguyen said. “We try to tell ’em what to do. And, we don’t give the patient a chance to speak. And I think that’s more therapeutic than telling them, ‘Oh, it’s not your fault.’ He needed to tell his story.”
Nguyen was heartened that the teen was there at all.
“He actually came to me for help, which is a huge sign of maturity,” Nguyen said. “But part of the reason he could was because we had a pre-existing relationship. That’s one of the benefits of getting to know people. He felt comfortable telling me about what he was going through.”
Nguyen understood that it had not been easy for the teen.
“You could tell he was struggling because he had to relive it a little bit,” Nguyen said.
But the teen did not have the difficulty other kids have expressing his feelings.
”He didn’t have a problem with that,” Nguyen said. “And I really respect him for that.”
Nguyen added, “He’s got a chance to make something of himself, that’s for sure.”
Nguyen asked the teen how his father was doing. The teen said his father was outside and the doctor went out with him.
“I made sure to check in with his dad,” Nguyen said. “I asked him how he was doing and he said he was all right.”
The moment then came when Nguyen turned to the teen and suddenly broke his no-hug rule.
“I reached out and gave the young man a half hug right in front of his dad in the parking lot,” Nguyen said. “He looked like he needed it. I know he has some support in his life, but not as much as he probably needs.”
Nguyen was moved enough that he asked for and received the teen’s permission to tweet about the visit that ended with a hug.
“He never got a chance to say goodbye or I’m sorry,” Nguyen wrote. “Family blames him and he of course blames himself. The young man is resilient but this is too much.
“Tell me again that COVID does not affect kids.”