I can only compare COVID-19 to 9/11

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These are tremendous times that we have never faced before. A novel virus, lack of preparation time, and a healthcare system that already runs at near capacity, we have a disaster of epic proportions on our hands.  What can we do? What should we do? How can I help even if I am not on the front lines?

Many of you are waging war on the front lines: the hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers, emergency rooms, testing centers, drive-thrus, and other direct patient care portals. Reports from the battlefront are difficult to stomach.  With limited testing and scarcity of personal protective equipment, this turns to be a personal decision with potentially grave consequences.  For those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, thank you!  Thank you from me, my family, and my neighbors.

The closest parallel for me is 9/11.  I was working on the Bellevue pediatric emergency service in New York City overnight of 9/10/2001.  Early morning of 9/11, I signed out and left my shift to ride the F train back to Brooklyn pretty sleepy-eyed.  As I was just about to settle into bed to catch some rest, something caught my attention on the television.  It looked like a large skyscraper was on fire on the upper floors.  Sleepily I told myself that this would be a perfect movie to fall asleep on. Then I noticed the channel. It was CNN, and the building on fire was one of the World Trade Centers!  Immediately the sleepiness left my body as I was shocked by this development.  As the reporters were explaining how the tower caught fire after a plane crashed into it, another plane crashed into the other tower.  My life felt like it was changing by the second. This couldn’t be bad luck; are we at war? Is New York City under siege? Meanwhile, the subways are shutting down; the city is confused. What is going on?

I rushed up several flights of stairs to see if I could get on the rooftop of my building and see what was going on.  In disbelief, I could see both towers burning at the end of the Manhattan skyline.  After confirming the news reports with my own eyes, I called into the hospital.  They told me to shelter in place in Brooklyn for now and be on standby.  They had enough hands available to attend to the expected barrage of patients that would be sent from the World Trade Centers.  Later in the afternoon, I got the call to come in for my overnight shift.  Travel was difficult as people were shocked and edgy.  However, I made it into the hospital, pumped up, and ready to spring into action. When I arrived that afternoon, the towers had already collapsed, and the emergency room was eerily quiet. There was barely a patient to be seen.

Normally, Bellevue is a bustling place full of kids ranging from barely sick to critical condition.  This day it was deserted aside from plenty of nurses and physicians waiting to tend to the injured. I looked around at the vastness of the large empty space. There was only one lone fireman who suffered a minor eye injury while fighting the blaze.  People knew to stay away from Bellevue; those cold symptoms and other minor illnesses could wait as the entire nation knew that they were shipping people from the world trade centers to Bellevue.  For days the ER was mostly empty except for food donations that were sent from across the country to help feed the staff who was sure to be overworked and tired.  The sad part of this empty ER was that there were few survivors to treat.  On the other hand, it was amazing to see humanity come together with support across the nation.

What if you can’t be on the front line?  Perhaps you are afraid of what it may mean for you, your family, your children, or your elderly parents that you take care of.  That is a valid reason as most of us are not trained for this COVID-19 scenario.  Perhaps you have a retired, suspended, or restricted license, or haven’t been a clinical doctor in a while.  Make that personal choice and don’t be apologetic.  There is nothing wrong with sitting on the sideline and being safe in this rapidly changing environment.  However, don’t count yourself out; there are ways in which you can help.

If you aren’t on the front lines and wish that you could help here are a few suggestions:

1. Help disseminate facts with people and debunk myths that are circulating.  This can happen via social media or telephonically to help people understand the facts as we know them today.  Perhaps you can write a letter to the editor that can shed further light on the situation or work with a local school district with planning.

2. Consider making a donation. There are many different charities and local funds being set up across the nation, knowing that we are in for many changes knowing the lingering effects.  This donation doesn’t have to be monetary.  Even the blood banks are in dire need of donations; give a pint.

3. Sign up for a telehealth company.  There is no time like the present to think telemedicine, particularly with the restrictions on home state licensure being lifted across the country.

4. Join local task forces or committees in your professional organizations. There are many local public health organizations trying to keep pace.  Often they enjoy the input of another physician.  It doesn’t have to be the CDC; your local officials are handling the local business.  Often they need the advice of a physician who can spare some time.

5. Stay positive. Keeping an upbeat spirit can be of great benefit to others, especially when they are feeling scared.

6. If nothing else, stay at home and practice good social distancing. Your example will be followed by others. We all must do our part to limit the spread. Leading by example helps a lot of people change their mind.

During emergencies, we want to be useful, and the public expects all of us to be on the front lines.  However, we can be beneficial in many ways, even if we aren’t staring COVID-19 directly in the face.    Take some time for developing your plan, and lets all pitch in to help us flatten the curve in the U.S. Stay safe.

Jarret Patton is a pediatrician, host of Licensed To Live, and author of Licensed to Live: A Primer to Rebuilding Your Life After Your Career Has Been Shattered.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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