When This War Is Over, Many of Us Will Leave Medicine

One ER physician recounts the stress of constant intubations and PPE shortages

Michele Harper
Elemental
Published in
8 min readApr 24, 2020

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Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

I couldn’t see. My face shield was blurred by a streaky haze. I tilted my neck back and forth in an effort to peer beyond it, beneath it, through it, whatever might work. Was it condensation? I started to raise my hands to my face to wipe it away before I remembered and yanked them back down: I cannot touch my face, can’t ever touch my face — neither inside this room nor outside it.

As I stood at the head of the patient’s bed in ER Room 3, her nurse, Kate, secured a mask over the patient’s face to deliver additional oxygen. I checked to ensure the oxygen was cranked up to the maximum flow rate while we waited for the respiratory therapist. Even with that increased oxygen, the patient was saturating 85% at best, and her blood pressure was dropping.

Ninety minutes earlier, the patient — a woman of 68 years with significant impairment from a stroke — had been fine. The nurse at her nursing home called to inform us they were sending the patient to the ER for evaluation of “altered mental status” because she was less “perky” than usual. Her oxygen level on arrival was normal with no shortness of breath. Her blood pressure was a little low, but her blood glucose read high. Nothing a little IV fluid couldn’t fix, and initially, it did.

I had requested a rectal temperature; it read 103 degrees. The combination of her being a nursing home resident and running a fever was a red flag during these coronavirus times. I placed her on respiratory isolation and asked Kate to be extra vigilant for any decline. I ordered broad-spectrum antibiotics to kill any likely source of infection while I awaited her chest X-ray, urine, and blood tests. Her portable chest X-ray was done first and revealed what I had already anticipated: diffuse atypical infiltrates, a presumed telltale sign of Covid-19. Although our understanding of this viral infection is ever-evolving, it seems the only observation we can reliably conclude is that we have not yet identified anything pathognomonic about it.

Seventy-five minutes later, another nurse, Charlene, called, “They need you in Room 3.”

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Michele Harper
Elemental

An emergency room physician for more than a decade and author of the upcoming memoir, The Beauty in Breaking. For more information visit: micheleharper.com