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

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

Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

I was scared, and I don’t get scared. Other doctors do, but not ER doctors. We don’t scare easily.

Now I waited for the respiratory therapist. It was good that she needed extra time to get the ventilator and then don her PPE because I had to figure out why I couldn’t see without manually manipulating my face shield. My thoughts were pierced by the sound of panting. I checked the patient who was taking the oxygen quietly, rapidly, ineffectively at regular intervals that didn’t register a sound. Her eyes remained closed—no flip of an eyelash, no wince of her forehead, no twitch in a limb. Despite her instability, the patient was in no visible distress. No heaving breath there. The nurse to my left was concentrating on the patient’s oxygen. I heard only the crinkle of her gown as she adjusted her stance. The panting wasn’t hers. The nurse to my right prepared to administer the intubation medications. He read out my orders — the name and dose of the medication in each syringe and the order in which they were to be pushed. His voice was steady. It wasn’t him hyperventilating. The nurse just outside of the room kept documentation of the procedure on scrap paper she used to carefully transcribe each detail onto her laptop. She was too far away to be heard unless she yelled, so that audible breathing certainly wasn’t hers.

Those of us who survive will return each day to battle. But when this war is over, this is why many of us will leave.

Doffing my gown and gloves, I put on new gloves to remove and sanitize my face shield. I couldn’t imagine there was a way to effectively clean the foam band across the forehead. I hoped to remove the streaks. I also hoped the impossible: to remove the virus, because it was the same shield I had to use repeatedly during my shift. I took off the N95. We’re now told that we can reuse it, too, numerous times before getting a new one due to the PPE shortages, so I put the contaminated mask back in the bag until I would need to don it again for the next patient.

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

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