Recently, I was sitting in the DFW airport after my son’s soccer tournament witnessing multiple flight cancellations. Travelers became upset because their plans were ruined due to “staff shortages.” I felt lucky as my flight was just delayed, and I had patients scheduled the next day. I needed to be there for them. Because of the increasing frequency of cancellations noted in the news, I had plans to rent a car and drive home for 14 hours if my flight had been canceled.
Because I had some time on my hands, I began to think about all the other sectors in life that have been upended by COVID-19 and the subsequent policies that led to bottlenecks and staff shortages.
It is as if our culture transformed into a COVID culture.
I saw weekly emails for two years about my children’s bus route being canceled. I witnessed teacher’s unions in 2021 pushing to not return to school due to COVID-19. I saw many soccer practices and games canceled due to policies regarding COVID-19, leading to shortages, demoralization, career changes, etc. I saw players’ dreams of athletic scholarship being shattered because recruiting was basically placed on hold.
Our family slept in the basement for six months due to a bathtub being delayed after our bathroom had already been gutted. I noticed some of my favorite restaurants closing early or shutting down due to the inability to hire. I noted customer service for various businesses lacking staff leading to poor service.
More recently, I noted friends not even being able to even get infant formula for their babies and daycare centers simply closing on a given day because they had a staff shortage, leaving parents with no place to care for their children.
Even more subtle changes were noted but persisted, such as the gym closing two hours earlier or towels not being available. The hotels that used to clean rooms daily now require 24-hour advance notice and will only clean one’s room on request.
These issues have been occurring for more than two years since the start of COVID-19. If that was not enough, the altered supply and demand economics created bottlenecks and shortages, leading to rampant inflation. This hit our poorest families the hardest due to gas and food prices skyrocketing.
Back in the airport, my thoughts shifted to my laptop as I did my daily check-in for my patients during my five-day respite from work as a gastroenterologist in Michigan. I was frustrated with all the negative ripple effects due to COVID-19 policies.
I thought to myself, “Despite over one million deaths from COVID-19, grueling Delta and Omicron waves, despite an early vaccination program, lack of great PPE early on in the pandemic, and the fear caused by this deadly virus, how did health care workers hold it together and continue to deliver excellent care?”
Unlike other sectors mentioned above, we had to run into this warzone and “make it happen” to care for the vulnerable despite all the unknowns, including death. Health care workers writing wills increased dramatically.
But we relentlessly persisted due to our calling.
I was on call the weekend of March 13th, 2020, and was notified that this virus drastically altered our schedules. Our team quickly adjusted, managed to take care of our sickest patients and still provided care the very next day!
I remember asking my neighbor in the tool and die business to borrow an N95 mask. I used that mask for two weeks straight. Others sanitized their masks. We reviewed critical care medicine and ventilator settings urgently at home due to the possibility of needing to care for these patients.
Despite the fear and death rates being quoted at that time while listening to Governor Cuomo daily, doctors, nurses, and technicians marched into work knowing they had a duty to care for the sick. We had supply shortages, bottlenecks and workers out sick like other sectors. But we somehow managed by working extra hours, working in different areas of the hospital and covering for each other.
I was especially astounded by the compassion nurses exhibited despite patients getting sicker and more frustrated. As COVID dragged on, health care workers worked more and more hours due to others being out sick. Burnout started to occur. We struggled, but we never gave up. We encouraged each other like a band of brothers and sisters.
We learned that if we had to do an endoscopy on a patient with known COVID, we didn’t refuse to perform the procedure or call in sick; we just made sure our N95 fit well and got the job done. Doctors, nurses and technicians were all working as a team. Knowing that my fellow colleagues were brave enough to undertake this scary time was empowering. But more importantly, I felt honored to have a fellow warrior by my side, whether a nurse, tech, manager, or any employee.
Due to a concerted effort by all health care workers, we managed to take care of all of our patients going forward into 2021 and 2022.
While sitting at the airport this past weekend, I also thought back to an article I published on KevinMD in 2013, “Dear Lawmakers: This Is What It’s Like to Be a Doctor Today.” It received over one million hits on various websites, was mentioned in the WSJ and had 74,000 shares on social media nine years ago over a three-day period.
Ironically, I discussed doctors’ mental, social and financial struggles in their journey, but I never even thought of the physical and emotional challenge of working through a pandemic. One must take a high emotional and physical risk to care for patients with COVID, including worrying over one’s health.
Back to my question, “Despite this deadly virus, how did health care workers hold it together?”
To answer this, it was very gratifying to be able to quote a paragraph from my article nine years ago:
“You may ask why do we do all of this? It’s because we have pride in what we do. We truly care for the well-being of the human race. We have been conditioned to think, act, talk, and work as a very efficient machine, able to handle emotions, different cultures, different ranges of intellect, all to promote the health of America.”
We are health care workers, a band of brothers and sisters.
Matthew Moeller is a gastroenterologist and the author of What It’s Like to Become a Doctor: The Year-by-Year Journey From Medical Student to Practicing Physician.
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