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Jeff Sutherland, MD, is the author of Still Life: A Memoir.

Jeff Sutherland, MD.


I have been good at many things in my life, bad at a few and expert at two.

The first of the things I’m expert at is writing with my eyes, which is how I wrote this essay. I don’t have the use of my hands. I haven’t been able to move them for almost 11 years. So I write with my eyes, selecting letters and words on an eye-gaze computer mounted about 12 inches in front of my face. The computer renders my selections into words, sentences, paragraphs and essays.

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My second expert skill is social distancing, which is suddenly very timely. The practice of it will greatly limit the spread of the novel coronavirus during this uncertain and fearful time.

I have had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past 13 years. For those who don’t know much about this disease, the motor neurons that connect my brain to my muscles have been destroyed. Why this happens, scientists don’t know. I am now paralyzed to the point where I can’t consciously move any muscles besides those that control the movements of my eyes. I can’t talk or eat or breathe on my own; I require the use of a ventilator to remain alive.

As you can probably surmise, my condition leaves me particularly vulnerable to any viral infection present in the community. There is little doubt that if I were to catch a cold or get the flu, I would be in serious trouble. It’s no exaggeration to say that dodging epidemics is a matter of life and death for me. You might think someone like me would be a sitting duck for every infection circulating, but the fact is I haven’t had a serious respiratory illness in my 13 years in this very vulnerable state of being. I attribute this to my practice of social distancing.

I have not locked myself in a bubble, away from the world. I am around people all the time – family, friends and care workers. I go to movies and attend special events. But I do limit my contact with the outside world at times when influenza is particularly endemic to my community, and I will certainly be doing so during the weeks that COVID-19 is rampant in our lives.

My extensive experience of living day-to-day in a vulnerable state is that social distancing works. If you follow the guidelines put out by the public-health experts in your local area, you can escape the worst of this pandemic. It’s not especially difficult. When I’m protecting myself from viruses, I keep busy. During periods of social distancing, I have read inspirational books, written my own book, deepened relationships with my family and friends and enjoyed the solitude of nature. I suggest you take advantage of this rare time and do things of value. That means limiting time on your screens. Right now, the 24-hour news cycle and social media are only increasing the fear among us.

The precautions are worthwhile. With ALS, I have had the experience of lying in intensive care for weeks after my respiratory arrest. My body no longer had the strength to breathe. I don’t wish that on anyone. Health professionals saved my life, but you don’t want that stress on yourself and your loved ones if by any means you can avoid it. A few simple acts will help to keep you safe: wash your hands thoroughly and frequently; avoid touching your face and eyes; avoid crowds and stay one or two metres from non-family members when possible; avoid shaking hands or other physical greetings; keep any frequently touched surfaces clean; use appropriate personal protective equipment in your workplace when warranted. That’s it.

You do not have to quarantine yourself from the world. You just have to be mindful of your interactions over the coming weeks and months. It’s inconvenient, yes, but it’s manageable for anyone.

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Social distancing will not only keep you safe; it will keep your loved ones safe. I have suffered the profound loss of my son and his girlfriend, who both died suddenly and tragically. There is nothing worse – not even ALS. So act to protect your family and friends.

It’s unfortunate, but whatever we do, some of us will lose people close to us in this pandemic. It is inevitable. But if we’re able to “flatten the curve” by taking such actions as social distancing, our country and most families will be able to get through this crisis relatively unscathed, and time will heal our collective wounds.

While we’re at it, we all need to be rational and kind to our neighbours. Don’t hoard and induce panic. There are plenty of resources for all of us if we only take what is needed and let others do the same. Don’t let fear prevent you from getting out into your community and doing your job and supporting your family, but be mindful of your environment and follow the guidelines set by reputable sources to limit your risk for contracting the virus.

There have already been serious financial setbacks to everyone. More will follow and lower-income families will be the hardest hit. Like most savers, I have seen my hard-earned savings decimated by the recent market upheaval. Governments must mitigate the damages to the most vulnerable.

Take it from a survivor: Our greatest enemy is the fear we allow to propagate in our minds, unchecked and malignant. Responsible behaviour will help to excise our fear and we will be able to extinguish the novel coronavirus from our communities. Remember that the current situation we find ourselves in is not permanent. It will pass. It will soon be a distant memory and most of us will go forward to a normal life.

As these months of inconvenience dissipate from our collective consciousness, I will continue to live with a measure of social distancing. That is my life, but it’s okay. After all, with more than a decade of experience, I am an expert at this. Perspective and gratitude allow me peace despite my profound losses. And I practise my distancing mindfully and kindly, so that when the air clears, I am able to return to living among people with a newfound sense of hope and connection.

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