BY DALY WALKER, MD – I recently talked with a young doctor who is working at the epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States. The father of three small children, he is an associate professor in Columbia University’s School of Medicine. He is a Johns Hopkins trained urologist and robotic surgeon, but now he spends his nights in Columbia Presbyterian’s intensive care unit caring for the 200 patients with COVID-19 who are on ventilators.
He is in the midst of this catastrophe at significant risk to himself because he and his fellow urologists volunteered to step aside from their safe and lucrative practices and go to the frontline in the battle against COVID-19.
I asked him what it was like to be working among the sick and dying who were highly contagious and why he and the thousands of nurses, doctors, aids, and other frontline healthcare workers were willing to put themselves in this perilous position.
“You’re a urologist,” I asked. “Why did you and your colleagues volunteer to move to the frontline of the corona battle?”
Here is what he told me.
“Suddenly there was an unbelievable surge of critically ill corona patients that overran the hospital,” he said. “They were everywhere, struggling to breath, getting CPR, being put on ventilators, and many dying. The whole hospital had become an ICU. We simply wanted to step in and help. It’s what you do as a doctor. It was all hands on deck.”
“Are you afraid when you are in the hospital caring for all of these highly contagious patients?”
“Definitely there is fear and anxiety,” he said. “It is like being in a war zone. I double mask and wear a face shield as well as a gown and gloves. Even though I am wearing protective gear, I worry continually that my mask is leaking or my gloves aren’t protecting me. Part of the job is to manage that fear. It’s like you have to do in the operating room.”
“Are there any particular events or patients that you’ve seen that moved you emotionally?”
“Just seeing how sick these people are is sobering, even terrifying. Often a surge of sadness comes over me. Families are not allowed to be with their loved ones who are ill. It is very sad to see them having to face what they are facing alone.”
“I am sure you worry about your own family. How do you protect them?’
“When I come home, I strip off my clothes in the garage and throw them in the washing machine. I take a very hot, long shower. I sleep alone. I don’t hug my wife or children. It’s hard for the kids to understand why their dad isn’t hugging them.”
The young doctor I am writing about is Eli Hyams, my son-in law. The children, of course, are my grandchildren, and his wife my daughter, Katie. Although I am proud of Eli, I am not telling his story to boast about him. Rather, I am telling it to call attention to the enormous sacrifices being made by he and other healthcare workers, but also to allow the readers to contrast what these heroes are enduring with the relative innocuous demands that social distancing is making on the rest of us.
Boca Grande’s Tom Brokaw once wrote, “Heroes are people who rise to the occasion and slip quietly away.” I would paraphrase that to say, “In the time of COVID-19 heroes rise to the occasion and stay quietly at home.”
So be a hero. Do something for the greater good. Wear a mask and hunker down for a while. It is an honor to do so.
Dr. Daly Walker is a physician at the Boca Grande Health Clinic.