My Colleagues Are Nervous

Artist: Chetna Singh, MD, Emergency Room Physician

My Colleagues Are Nervous

...My patients are crying...A poignantly beautiful first-hand account from a practicing oncologist about the fear and tears caused by COVID-19 for both patients and physicians.

Do you remember when you were a bright-eyed pre-med student, head bowed at the computer, typing your personal statement? Type, type … backspace, backspace … type. You didn’t want to use the phrase “to help people” in your statement as your reason for wanting to be a physician. Maybe you said something like me. I mentioned how there were no doctors in my family, and I wanted to be the first. I mentioned that I wanted my life and work to be meaningful. I shared experiences from working as a nurses’ aide for a local pediatrics group.


When I didn’t get in the first time (or second), I kept at it. I just “knew” I was destined to become a physician.  Why did I really want to do it? It’s hard to put into words, aside from saying that it was a calling. Years later, I still feel that way. I feel blessed to practice medicine daily.


Over the last few years, I’ve watched as we have disparaged medicine. For all of her glory and wisdom, our society has devalued her. We, physicians, have talked behind her back, called her names, and even abandoned her.  We have bullied her, or watched others bully her … standing off to the side, leaving her undefended.


And then a pandemic happens.


Li Wenliang, the whistleblower, makes the ultimate sacrifice as he dies from COVID-19 after caring for affected patients.


News from Italy reveals that 1 of 5 cases of COVID-19 is a health care worker.


Two emergency physicians (in New Jersey and Washington) are hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19.


My colleagues are nervous. My patients are crying.


And yet, we are here.


Every physician I know has stepped up to help. Retired physicians are returning to care for patients and educate our teams. Outpatient physicians are re-learning pulmonary and critical care. Administrative physicians are donning scrubs and swabbing patients for COVID-19 in makeshift clinics tucked inside tents.


Physicians are talking and tweeting in ways that I haven’t seen in years. As terrible as this pandemic is, it has fueled an excitement for medicine again. There is a fire in our collective belly to learn more and help as many as we can. We are gobbling up recommendations from our brothers and sisters in Italy and China. We are reading journal articles and passing them around to colleagues. We are rediscovering ways to reduce the incidence of disease via public health measures. We are volunteering to cover for each other. We are crying with each other. Our walls are down, and we are humanizing medicine again.


At my alma mater, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, medical students felt helpless as their clinical rotations were closed. They rallied and put together a list of students interested in helping others without being in the hospital or clinic. They are providing babysitting, shopping, and home services for those health care workers on the front lines.


Meanwhile, a quick Twitter search will reveal helpful therapies for COVID-19. Instead of “claiming research credit,” physicians are sharing novel ideas about helpful strategies broadly. A clinical trial for a potential vaccination has opened in the U.S. in record time. I have read about hydroxychloroquine, tocilizumab, and remdesivir as potential palliative strategies. Physicians have shared data on ventilator settings, ECMO, and even sample CT scans of affected patients. In my local physician moms’ group on social media, we have shared helpful daily updates to over 700 local physicians. In Charlotte, we are raising funds to help our patients with cancer who are affected by COVID-19. Physicians from various hospital systems are working together for the common good of our communities … the way medicine should be.


May we all emerge on the other side of this pandemic with a renewed enthusiasm for medicine. I am watching, as she welcomes us back with open arms.  Perhaps we will all continue to fall in love with her all over again. 


Ashley Sumrall is an oncologist and can be reached on Twitter @AshleySumrallMD.


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