These 2 NY Presbyterian doctors will divest you from any doubt about the continuing lethality of COVID-19

These 2 NY Presbyterian doctors will divest you from any doubt about the continuing lethality of COVID-19
Staff Sgt. Beth Kenney, 56th Dental Squadron dental assistant, wears a N95 respirator mask while misted with a sensitivity and fit test solution April 1, 2020, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. The outer hood isolates the spray, and if the N95 mask is properly fitted, the individual wearing the mask will not smell or taste the solution. Bioenvironmental personnel are fitting masks to protect medical personnel from Coronavirus Disease 2019 so they can continue care for patients. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Leala Marquez)

As our elected leaders, mostly Republican ones but some Democrats as well, continue the seemingly relentless push to reopen the country, an effort whose origins lie in an imperative being urged and sanctioned from the very highest levels, most visibly in the persona of Donald Trump, the will to resist such pressure becomes more and more difficult for Americans.

We can understand in our heads that the Covid-19 pandemic has not fundamentally changed in scope; we can see the rising death counts in states that have foregone social distancing to any serious degree, and those that have broadly reopened their businesses for the public’s consumption. But when others around us begin to moderate their caution, when we hear stories of friends enjoying the beach, their dinner at a restaurant, their small get-togethers with close friends, our ability to see the thing clearly-- as it actually exists-- becomes fuzzy and indistinct, like a memory that needs to be tricked into reappearing. The constant stress of lockdown welcomes the type of magical thinking that our governments are peddling, that this is ultimately little more than a very virulent flu, that only the old or infirm are really susceptible, and that our lives simply must return to normalcy.

Our leaders know this as well, which is why you have Treasury Secretary Mnuchin flatly declaring “we cannot shutdown the country again,” and think-tanks for financial institutions opining “We have to get away from the shutdown policy and towards something that is more about risk mitigation.” The sweet relief of reopening the country is a difficult, almost impossible siren to resist, and its difficulty increases each day as millions of unemployed people see their savings dwindling and their bills mounting.

But there is a certain class of people who will not waver in their vigilance: the doctors and nurses who have treated Covid-19 patients over the last three months.

Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer prize winning author, possibly most famous for capturing and attributing the infamous remark describing the “reality-based community” spoken by an unnamed official in the George W. Bush Administration. In an extraordinary opinion piece written for the New York Times,  Suskind incorporates snippets of quotes from forty doctors and nurses working at NY Presbyterian Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  He used digital platform technology which he had originally developed for autistic people to interact with others, much like Zoom, and provided it to the doctors and nurses he selected:

In late March, each doctor found a trusted colleague and paired off for regular encounters on the platform, called BongoMedia, where they sit, usually at home — their faces side-by-side, like on Zoom — for a 10-minute session guided by preloaded questions that pop up on the screen every few minutes: How are You Feeling? What Do You Fear? What Are Your Hopes?

And after a while, the doctors and nurses so paired up on this digital platform began to share their stories about treating Covid-19 patients. Measures were also added to ensure anonymity for the vast majority who requested it. But two doctors did not, Kelly Griffin and Lindsay Lief, both doctors at NY Presbyterian.

Their video is interactive, embedded in Suskind’s article and autoplays when you scroll down to it. I cannot embed it, but I can post some of the quotes. The video is harrowing as these two doctors commiserate about what they have had to deal with.  To access their conversation, go the link here and scroll down.

Some of the quotes from the video are included in Suskind’s article.

Dr. Lief says people — really smart people — ask her: “It’s like the flu, right?”
       This is not the flu [:]                Dr. Lief
       This is not the flu [:]                Dr. Griffin

“This is not the flu” is a mantra heard throughout the tapes, which rarely get political, but often carry base notes of incredulity and resentment about denial and misinformation coming from many directions — and the well-known failures of America’s government, economy and health care system. All of that is putting this small class of workers, upon whom so many lives depend, under untenable pressure.

Watching the doctors in that  the video, you’ll never mistake Covid-19 for the flu:

       My God, she was so young.  It’s hard to wrap your head around.

Many of the conversations of all these frontline medical treaters, Suskind notes, deal with the day-to-day reality of death these people have seen:

They veer into a matter-of-fact description of the horrors they’ve faced over the last few weeks. She talks about a man in his late 80s with a litany of preconditions that she encountered along with an I.C.U. fellow a few days before. The man’s condition was critical. There’s not much hope for him.
They wanted to get him to an I.C.U. bed, and the I.C.U. fellow was kind of hesitant, because everyone knows (he’s soon to die).   [Female resident]
      Just had to call it?   [Male resident]
      It’s such an uncomfortable decision to make, because we didn’t sign up to play God.                [Female resident]
      We had to call the morgue, and then clean up the bed, and the cleaning-up kind of held up a spot for someone else who’s been languishing in the E.D. (emergency department), waiting for an I.C.U.      
      …How do you make those decisions? 
Suskind’s article highlights the psychological impact of witnessing so much death on these medical providers. He quotes LLoyd Sederer, a mental health specialist who oversaw FEMA’s efforts to treat PTSD in emergency medical technicians and police in New York City after 9/11: “With the coronavirus, there will be no return to normal: The virus will just keep rolling along, striking blows to the population and to the confidence of doctors —  a confidence in their ability to help and save,” he said. “That’s the core of their identity, and it’s been shaken. They don’t feel like themselves. There’s no horizon, no clear end to this.”

As Suskind’s project extended over several months it also includes Doctors’ reactions to the widespread protests occurring across the country. The general reaction appears to be one of muted horror:

“I’m seeing all these rallies in the streets,” the doctor tells his colleague. “And I'm like, 'This is literally the opposite of what we have been telling everybody to do for the last three months: Stay home, stay far apart.’ I hope these people are not sick, and I hope the ones who are sick are sitting at home, rallying from their computers."

They both agree, as he says, that the demonstrations are “super-important and unprecedented.” And yet, “the coronavirus is hitting the people who are in the least-privileged areas of the country,” the colleague says. “And now it's not really getting much attention. Again, there's this weird class divide in the way things are sort of treated.”

They both pause, put their heads in their hands, and say the same thing. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

I can only suggest you watch the video of Griffin and Lief, and that you keep it in the back of your mind whenever you’re inclined to abandon social distancing.

For any reason.


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