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If you could see my hospital, you would know the horror of covid-19

A tattered American flag hangs across the street from a New York City hospital. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Danielle Stansky is an emergency medicine resident physician in New York City.

My patient dialed his wife on the cracked iPhone he barely knew how to use. I grabbed the phone from the 74-year-old’s shaking hands as it rang, keeping one eye on his mouth, chest and face and the other on the monitor as his oxygen saturation dropped.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Stansky,” I said. “I am with your husband.” My stomach turned as I tried to find the right words. How do you tell someone over the phone that this might be the last time they ever speak to their spouse?

These past few weeks have been some of the most heart-wrenching in my life. Coding a patient before I even knew her name. Telling families they can’t be with their loved ones. Watching a healthy 28-year-old man with covid-19 become so sick that only machines keep him alive. It is exhausting, and by no means does it feel heroic.

People often ask me, “Should I really be worried?” The answer is yes. I wish I could make them a fly on the wall. Maybe then they would understand this disaster. I am scared for my patients. I am scared for my colleagues. I am scared for my friends and family. And as much as I don’t like to admit it, I am scared for myself.

I call my parents on FaceTime everyday. I try to smile and make jokes. I try not to remind them of my coworkers who have contracted the virus. I try not to feel guilty that I cannot see them or help them grocery shop because I have been exposed. I watch my mom tear up at the end of our conversation. My eyes barely open from exhaustion. Her eyes scream the words, “I wish you didn’t have this job.”

It was 9:55 p.m. — five minutes left in my shift, one of the worst yet. I heard a nurse calling my attending’s name. Knowing he was outside speaking with a patient’s family, I went to see if I could help. Behind the workstation I saw a new patient and snapped into resuscitation mode. ER doctors are drilled on how to identify who is sick and not sick. She was sick — minutes from death if we didn’t help her.

The patient was breathing 60 times a minute and within seconds could no longer answer my questions. I rushed to grab a plastic gown. There were none left. But we needed a breathing tube fast, and putting one in even with gear on puts everyone around me at risk. I ran to the metal racks, grabbed a yellow patient gown and put it over my head. I looked down at my arms, exposed from the elbow down to my glove. Better than nothing. I threw one at the nurse and a co-resident and ran into the room.

We began to resuscitate the patient, pounding on her chest, inserting a breathing tube, pushing epinephrine, guiding a crash femoral venous line into her leg. Anything to keep her alive. This woman died in front of me and came back. I left my shift that day, walking past her distraught family standing on the curb worrying about their mother who was fine just hours earlier. She was hanging on by a thread. I held back tears, got in the car and drove away. Hours later, she died.

I think back to the phone call with my patient’s wife. “I am with your husband,” I said. “I believe he has covid. His breathing is worsening, and I think the only way to help him is to place a breathing tube. He won’t be able to speak, and he will be sedated. He will be kept comfortable, and we just have to hope in time his lungs will recover.” My patient began to gasp for air as his wife asked if she should come see him. Knowing this was impossible, he took the phone and said to her, “No sweetheart, I want you to be safe.” His wife begged me to make sure people call and update her daily. I promised to pass this message along, knowing all too well the intensive care unit will eventually become so inundated with patients that it may not happen. They said “I love you” and hung up.

My patient looked up at me and said, “I trust you. Do what you have to do.” This man, who has so much more life experience than I but who likely didn’t have the same understanding as I did about what putting a breathing tube down his throat meant, gave me mixed feelings. Pride and gratitude that he could trust me after just a few hours of knowing me. But also shame and sadness that I knew I did not have much to offer him and that from what we know, his most likely outcome was death.

Read more:

Craig Spencer: A day in the life of a New York emergency room doctor

Dorothy Novick: Health-care workers issue a desperate challenge: #GetMePPE!

Ignacio Escolar: I’m in Spain, but this is a message from the future

The Post’s View: Let health workers have the medical gear. But we should all start covering our faces.

Kevin Brennan: Some people worry we’re overreacting to coronavirus. I worry about dying on a ventilator.

Jason Rezaian: I survived solitary confinement. You can survive self-isolating.

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