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‘I hate masks, too,’ I told my teenage patient and his mother, ‘but I like living life’

A Park Ridge pediatrician navigates the backlash against science-based protections against COVID-19.

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On a Tuesday this past October, I was getting ready to see my next patient. My ECG tech walked up to me, with furrowed brow. Something was up.

“Dr. Thoele, be careful with the people in Room 3. It’s a 16-year-old boy with high cholesterol, but he and his mother might not be wearing a mask.”

I was puzzled. At my pediatric cardiology clinic, we’d all been covering our faces for the past six months, and compliance had been excellent.

“Why?” I asked. “Isn’t that the policy?”

“Yes. But at registration, they gave the clerks a hard time about the mask rule,” the ECG tech said. “I hope they didn’t take them off.”

I tightened my bright green mask, populated with lions, bears and monkeys, and entered the room.

John (not his real name) and his mother wore large black masks, emblazoned with “TRUMP 2020.” Before discussing John’s cholesterol levels, I decided to bring up the subject of face coverings.

“So,” I said, “I heard you’re not big fans of masks.”

John’s mother replied, “No! We hate masks. They’re so ridiculous.”

“Great,” I said, “then you and I have something in common.”

Their eyes opened wide.

“What do you mean?” asked the mother.

“I hate masks!” I said. “It’s hard to breathe when I’m wearing a mask. I can’t see people’s faces. Masks are just annoying.”

They both nodded their heads vigorously. I felt a surprising connection to my patient and his mother.

“But I also have a problem, because I like this other thing, called ‘living life,’” I said. “Even though I hate masks, I think they’re important. If I wear my mask, I keep you safe, and if you wear your masks, you keep me safe. These annoying things are helpful. Even though I hate them.”

“We heard that wearing a mask makes you more likely to get the virus,” said John’s mom.

I decided it was time to play the doctor card.

“Actually, that’s not true,” I said. “I reviewed the study you’re talking about, and it doesn’t show that. In fact, no studies show any dangers from masks. Did you hear about the hair stylists in Missouri? They both had COVID, cut hair for over one hundred clients, but no one got COVID, since everyone in the salon was wearing a mask.”

They said they hadn’t heard about the hairstylists.

As I did during most patient visits in 2020, I decided to personalize the pandemic. “So how’s the pandemic going for you?” I asked. “Tell me one thing you love about the pandemic, and one thing you hate about it.”

John’s mom spoke first. “I love spending more time with John; I’m working from home, and he’s attending school from home. But I hate that my dad died in May. We couldn’t even have a funeral!”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“He had a heart attack,” she said. “But I couldn’t be with him. They wouldn’t even let me go into the church to get some holy water.”

“That’s ridiculous. They should have at least let you get some holy water,” I agreed.

Then I added, “You and I have something else in common. I lost my dad in March. He fell, broke his neck, we couldn’t visit him, and no funeral until five months later.”

John’s mom and I stared at one other, sighed, and shook our heads.

It was time to talk about lab values. “Let’s go over John’s cholesterol levels.”

I asked John about a typical day, how many vegetables he ate, how much exercise he did, and so on. Occasionally, John’s mom interrupted us.

“You know that Biden just wants to shut down the economy…”

“SHUT IT, Mom! No one cares!” John cut off his mom’s political rants, so we could focus on his cholesterol and what to do about it.

I was relieved that John and I connected, which is always the goal, but not always achieved with teenage patients. He agreed to avoid sugary cereals, eat more fish, and exercise more. And, thanks in part to John, his mom kept her mask on during the entire visit.

I gave the papers for a blood test to his mom, and said, “Thanks for our honest discussion. Even if we don’t vote for the same person, I’m glad we talked. If people who disagree can’t have a conversation, there’s no hope. At least, that’s the way I see it.”

And even though their mouths were hidden by black Trump masks, their eyes gave their smiles away. And that felt great.

David G. Thoele, M.D., is an attending physician and pediatric cardiologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge.

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