These are the worst of times. The COVID-19 crisis, with its high morbidity and mortality, has demonstrated how ill-prepared our country was to combat a pandemic. Its effects on our collective psyche will remain long after the last case has been diagnosed and treated. These are, however, also the best of times. In times of crisis, people either rise to meet the challenge or run away to seek shelter from the storm. The American healthcare worker has risen to the occasion and met the challenge head-on. Like soldiers on the battlefield rushing to face the enemy or 9/11 where firefighters and police officers rushed into the Twin Towers while everyone was fleeing, healthcare workers are heading into harm’s way every day and night to help others and save lives. And healthcare workers travel from all over the country to volunteer their services to help their colleagues and come to the aid of our population in need.
The insides of hospitals today are eerily quiet. Long corridors devoid of foot traffic are the norm, with the occasional masked worker strolling by. People waiting for elective admissions, elective procedures or laboratory tests are gone. There are no visitors. Only essential workers are present. The silence is only broken by the all too frequent announcements of a respiratory arrest, signifying that another patient is urgently being placed onto a ventilator. Or more recently, the sound of bells and applause when a patient is either extubated or discharged.
In stark contrast, patient floors are abuzz with activity. Doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, administrators, maintenance workers and others are active, all unrecognizable behind their N95 and surgical masks and hospital PPE equipment, except for wide, improvised, name tags made from masking tape across their chest and backs. They leave their trepidation and fears at the door when they enter the hospital. They support and comfort the patients who are suffering and dying alone, away from their loved ones. The comradery, commitment and care of these workers is palpable. Their energy levels are high, their emotions are labile. The American healthcare worker has stepped up to the task.
Every day we see that COVID-19 is not male or female, it is not young or old, it is not black or white and it is not democratic or republican. This is not the time to place blame. It is the time to provide comfort, care and resources. People are falling ill and asking, in some cases begging, for help to survive. They are scared. Health has always been the great equalizer.
As a healthcare worker on the frontlines, I implore anyone who politicizes this crisis or goes on television or social media pretending to be an expert from the safety of where they are “sheltering in place” to visit a battlefield hospital dealing with this crisis, don personal protective equipment and see first-hand how truly horrible this disease is for patients and see how courageous and caring our healthcare workers are in fighting to save lives.
We, the healthcare workers, on behalf of our patients and communities that we serve, ask to be liberated from this disease by following the advice of our epidemiologists, infectious disease physicians and continue the policy of social distancing until it is deemed safe to get back to normal. For those who don’t know, the 1918 influenza pandemic actually lasted from 1918-20 and had three waves of disease, each phase precipitated by the premature ending of social distancing. The second wave of that pandemic in the United States was the deadliest. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of that era.
We, the healthcare workers, on behalf of our patients and the communities that we serve, ask that we be allowed to continue to work towards the development of effective therapies and vaccines to treat and prevent this horrible disease without rushing to judgment about the effectiveness and safety of unproven therapies. We need well designed clinical trials to accurately determine the most appropriate therapies.
We, the healthcare workers, on behalf of our patients and the communities that we serve, ask to be provided with the equipment we require to keep ourselves safe so that we can continue to do our jobs without falling ill or infecting our families. We also ask that when this pandemic finally comes to an end, and it will, that those healthcare workers who suffer from the mental anguish and traumas from what we have seen be provided with the help and support required to become whole again.
And finally, we, the healthcare workers, truly thank our patients and the communities that we serve for all your support, respect and kind words which keep us strong and help motivate us to go to the battlefield of the American hospital every day to serve you until this crisis is over.
David Bernstein, MD, is a columnist and chief of gastroenterology,
hepatology and nutrition at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center.