Remember the real heroes in our COVID war

Every day our governors announce the COVID death toll and highlight a family who lost a member of their family too soon. COVID took a 35-year-old mother. It took a 48-year-old father.   These deaths are tragic.  But a frequent refrain is that this virus mainly kills those with extensive health problems, it kills the old, it kills those that would die anyway.   The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) estimates that over half the deaths from COVID are in people over 70. These deaths, the deaths of our parents, our grandparents are not singled out in official statements. They are an expected sacrifice. As an Emergency Physician, these patients are more than a statistic.  I witness their deaths and know that each of them had a family, a story, and they die under extraordinary circumstances.

Dr. C. was one of the many patients I have seen die from COVID-19. He was 97 years old. He, like me, was a physician. He had six children, 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He taught generations of physicians at an elite medical school. Despite his years, he lived independently. He still rode his bike, gardened, and although he no longer practiced, he still had his medical license. He lived the life I hope to live.

Dr. C. was brought in by ambulance from home because he was weak. When he arrived, he had low oxygen saturations and wasn’t breathing well, so he was placed in the quarantined section of the ER. As a physician, he wanted to know everything we were doing: every X-ray finding and lab result. However, to protect frontline workers from COVID-19 we have limited contact with our patients. We enter the room one time, in a gown, gloves, a suffocating N95 mask, and welder’s helmet to do the exam, and all other communication is performed on an iPad or phone.

Ultimately, Dr. C. proved to have COVID-19. Given his hearing impairment, this news needed to be given in person.  I needed to go back into the room in my astronaut suit.

“Dr. C., you have COVID-19.” He was quiet for a while. Finally, he replied: “This is not the way I thought this would go. I haven’t seen my family for six weeks.” Dr. C. couldn’t hear well without his hearing aids.  He needed me to help call his family.

We called his oldest son.   They talked for a while. He let him know he was in the hospital but was doing “fine, nothing to worry about.” He didn’t tell him that he had tested positive. His son was over 70; he wanted to protect him.

After the call, I sat in his room in my spacesuit, 6 feet away as his oxygen saturations decreased, despite all medical interventions. Thankfully, his favorite show was on television: Wheel of Fortune. After the show was over, he said, “It’s OK; you can go.” Two hours later, he died.

Dr. C. was born in the roaring twenties.  He grew up during the Great Depression.  He served in WWII.  He trained generations of doctors.  He died in the Great Pandemic.  What a story. And it’s true; he was 97 years old.  He would have died soon, no matter what. But he would have died with his family around him. His life would have been celebrated with a funeral. He would have been more than the department of health’s daily death tally.

When we talk about reopening, we should have a conversation about the real heroes: those that have died and will die from this virus.  We should talk about how to connect with those we love, who sit in isolation waiting to succumb. Are we really protecting them by not being with them?  I don’t know the answer. I do know that prior to COVID-19, my patients chose how to spend their last days and who to spend them with. These are our parents, our grandparents, and our great grandparents, and now they are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. As we reopen our states,  we should ask the soldiers in this war, those that will lose their lives in battle, how they want to spend their last days.

Carolyn Anne McClain is an emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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