I struggle to describe my conflicting emotions: Defeated. Lucky. Drained.
I feel defeated in that so many patients with COVID-19 died while I cared for them, yet I consider myself lucky that my shift lasted a mere four weeks “on the front lines” in the Bronx.
I feel defeated in that more than 100,000 Americans have died as a result of the mismanagement of the national response to this pandemic, yet I feel lucky that I still have my own health.
Day after day, I find myself drained, unable to accept or comprehend the suffering I witnessed firsthand.
I was about to graduate from my gynecology-oncology fellowship when the COVID-19 virus emerged in New York City. This spring was supposed to be the culmination of my seven years of training and the launch of my surgical career. Like many other medical and surgical specialties, however, the hospital’s oncology service was shut down by the crisis. I was sidelined, watching what was taking place around me.
I followed the news and the numbers of the ill and dying skyrocket. I watched Gov. Andrew Cuomo plead for doctors to come from out-of-state to help New York. I asked myself, why should I, a young healthy physician, sit at home while this virus indiscriminately took a heavy toll on my cancer patients? So, at the end of March, I volunteered to serve coronavirus patients.
The morning before my first day in the COVID-19 unit I sheepishly asked my partner, “Can I cry?” I started bawling before he was able to answer. I was scared, but I gained my composure after a few moments, got into my car, and drove to work. From the moment I snapped the tight elastic of my N-95 mask around my head, the scenes I had watched on television became real ― and palpably awful.
I knew it was going to be bad, but it was more horrific than any images I could have conjured. The condition of patients rapidly fluctuated, often regardless of treatment. The virus acted on its own accord. I had never seen anything like it. I felt helpless, unable to heal as I was trained to do.
I knew it was going to be bad, but it was more horrific than any images I could have conjured... The virus acted on its own accord. I had never seen anything like it. I felt helpless, unable to heal as I was trained to do.
When not directly caring for a patient, I shifted my focus to something I could fix: the N95 mask glued to my face. God, it hurt. My nose, my ears, the crown of my head, all in pain but I was too frightened to take it off. After the first few days, when I could not stand the damned mask any longer, I wore it only when I entered patients’ rooms. Was the whole ward infested with COVID-19? Most likely. Was this a smart idea? Certainly not. But I had to exercise what little control I had by removing the mask between my interactions with patients.
Every medical student learns the first question to ask yourself in every patient encounter: “Is this patient sick or not sick?” I have always prided myself in being able to distinguish between the two. With COVID-19, the difference was not apparent. I could not tell who was going to live and who was going to die. I had four patients who were ready for discharge when, suddenly, they decompensated. All four were put on a ventilator, eventually dying. I had called their loved ones just days prior and told them that everything was okay. Who was I helping?
My job is to care for patients with cancer, so I am familiar with death. Besides successful outcomes, the most rewarding part of my job is helping patients and families cope with end-of-life issues. This was different. Death came suddenly, randomly, and at an alarming rate. In the morning we would arrive for our shifts and ask, “How many patients died last night?” I took breathing tubes out of patients who had died because the respiratory therapists were too busy trying to save those who were still alive. Everyone was working to the best of their ability, but the death was overwhelming.
Thankfully, people stayed at home and the curve began to flatten. After four weeks, I was able to go back to my regular position, once again buffered from COVID-19 ― at least directly in my professional life.
Transitioning from patients’ bedsides back to watching from afar was difficult. I suddenly saw the response of the federal government from a new perspective. The president was in complete denial of his errors, blinded by thoughts of reelection. Instead of helping to bring about national unity to usher urgent aid to hospitals and healthcare workers, I saw partisanship. I saw angry people across the political spectrum. Some shamed others for not wearing masks, while others protested the audacity of a government that would tell them to do so. What would those people have said if, before the pandemic, their loved ones’ surgical teams refused to wear masks in the operating room because they did not feel like it?
I cannot watch or listen to it anymore. I feel as defeated by our political leaders as I do by COVID-19. What we need now is a president with compassion, from the Latin phrase “com-pati,” meaning someone to share our suffering. It is no coincidence that the word “patient” traces back to this same Latin root. At the very least, we need a president who can empathize with his fellow Americans facing an unprecedented medical and economic disaster.
My friends, my family, and even strangers have shown me compassion, kindness, and respect. Where are these sentiments from the federal government? A strong, functioning leadership should be able to unify the country in the face of a global crisis. It is a disgrace that the partisan divide has been furthered by a continued embrace of tribalism. The politicization of this pandemic has helped no one.
To overcome this pandemic, we need a president who can look past politics and listen to scientists, physicians, and the data. We need a president who has enough self-confidence to admit when he is not, in fact, an “expert.” From the beginning of this pandemic, the experts have stressed that too much was unknown to recommend specific treatments for COVID-19 and that clinical trials needed to be conducted.
My fellow doctors and I tirelessly recruited patients to clinical trials for various treatments to fight COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine. Results from recent clinical trials showed that hydroxychloroquine did not effectively treat the virus and that, in some cases, serious side effects were found. This is well known, yet the president has continued to recklessly promote this medication ― and publicly stated that he took it. This is not only dangerous to him but threatens the integrity of the entire medical community.
To overcome this pandemic, we need a president who can look past politics and listen to scientists, physicians, and the data. We need a president who has enough self-confidence to admit when he is not, in fact, an “expert.”
I feel lucky to have my health and am honored to have worked alongside other dedicated medical professionals. However, I witnessed too many individuals’ lives get cut short due to the inadequacies of our federal government. It is defeating to watch our president stoke a partisan divide when he should be leading with compassion and emphasizing national unity. While he attacks his political rivals and pushes dangerous remedies from behind a podium, the medical community is witnessing the unimaginable toll of this pandemic “from the front lines.”
I worry about what is to come. The medical community has been working tirelessly to help find answers to treat this crisis and we cannot have a president continue to undermine this hard work. Prior to the next wave of the pandemic, we need unity and deference to the experts for guidance. Without appropriate, honest or compassionate leadership at the helm of this nation, we are likely to continue losing the same battles I saw so many patients lose. This is the time for strong, compassionate leadership and, unfortunately, like PPE, it is in short supply.
Lauren Turker is a board certified obstetrician and gynecologist in New York City. She is currently finishing her fellowship training in gynecologic oncology.
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