Three straws held in hand, each a different length, a decision to be made. It was September 1990. The hospital commander held them, so they appeared equal in length. The instructions were simple: The long one wins. The consequences, though, were not: separation from family, physical and emotional hardship, possible injury, and even death. There were three of us, Army physicians assigned to the hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. We stared at the straws, the weight of the decision palpable. One of us would stay back, the one who drew the long straw. I drew it. I would stay while my two colleagues deployed with the 101st Air Assault Division to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield soon to become Desert Storm, the First Gulf War.
I sat motionless, the long straw in my hand. At first, there was relief. I would not be leaving my wife and three small boys to potentially go into harm’s way. I looked at my partners. One was only two months out of training and newly married. His eyes were downcast; shoulders slumped forward. The other, like me, experienced, with a young family as well. Suddenly my thoughts went back to my father. It was the summer of 1965, Fort Benning, Georgia. He was packing his gear to deploy to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division. It was the first major buildup of the war. He was happy; my mother was not. He was humming and whistling to himself, which only made my mother madder. I heard her say, “Why are you so happy? Don’t you know you could be killed and leave me with all these children?” I remember my father’s answer vividly. “Don’t you understand that this is what I have trained and prepared for my entire life?” Suddenly, I knew I had to go. I could not remain back. I, too, had prepared and trained for war starting at West Point. A decision was made. My new colleague stayed back.
Decades later, a decision is to be made again. The coronavirus has appeared, a pandemic declared, the unknown, still unknown. For me, this is a war, very different from my first, but a war nevertheless. This time the enemy is invisible. There is hype from the many media avenues. What is true, not true? What to do, not to do? A novel infection, unanswered questions, people dying, a recipe for fear. I remember the straws and my father’s words. I could not sit back while others — physicians, nurses, hospital staff — remained in harms’ way. They are my friends, colleagues, co-workers, my band of brothers and sisters. I have served with them through the years doing what we do best, caring for others no matter the circumstances. I make a decision. I will go back to patient care after five years in hospital administration leadership. I cannot do. Otherwise, my father’s words echo in my mind.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician.
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