On Behalf Of Doctors Fighting The Virus, I'm Begging You To Stay Home
I am completing what is possibly my last list at a suburban private hospital, where I perform a mixture of urgent and elective procedures as a gastroenterologist.
As I do this, I reflect on the subject that has dominated all conversations -- the COVID crisis -- and I think about what’s to come.
The articles we’ve read, the horror stories we’ve heard from friends and colleagues currently working in affected areas, and the strategic plans made at the systems level (and also at home) to prepare for the war at hand... they are all shared thick and fast, completely consuming us for the last month.
Many specialists and surgeons in my position have been asked to cancel elective procedures on patients in order to minimize hospital exposures. While I have not yet been called to help coronavirus patients yet, my time could come quite soon -- as it has for my anaesthetist colleague.
Whilst working in theatre, he told me about the measures he is taking with his family in the coming months. You see, his wife is currently 13-weeks pregnant and they have a one-year-old son. In the coming weeks and months ahead, he will be on the front lines of the public hospital system, likely intubating patients and being called upon 24-7. He and other nurses will be drafted early on in this “war against the corona”, which is what my daughters have called it.
He has made the heartbreaking choice, and rightly so, to quarantine himself from his family for the coming weeks and months (however long it takes), to keep his family safe and healthy. He, like so many others, is one of the brave ones -- they will be the infantry that fight the first advance as the viral army comes over the hill with the high-ground advantage, artillery forces and waves of soldiers.
The medical workforce is preparing as best we can, but truth be told, we feel let down by some of our fellow Australians. Watching the scene at Bondi Beach on 20th March breaks our hearts. It means all the work we are doing to prepare for the onslaught is for naught.
People who continue to gather and do not obey social distancing guidelines are feeding the enemy. They are giving the virus a boost of steroids, growth hormone, ammunition -- even a nuclear weapon. By comparison, we the medical workforce will be armed with our pitchforks, axes and spades, ill-equipped to fight this battle. For goodness sake, we literally do not have enough masks and personal protective equipment to defend ourselves from an airborne virus that seeks to embed itself into our lungs. With each breath we are exposed.
I don’t want to labour the war analogy any longer, but it is no secret that, if things keep going as they have been, intensive care beds will soon be overrun. The fear that Australia will find itself in a similar position to parts of Italy and London -- where infected patients are arriving very frequently, needing intubation, intensive care and life support to help them breath -- is really not a far stretch. And disturbingly, the known demographic trends appear to be changing, with younger patients now getting sick, needing intensive care and even dying. Do not think you are immune to its impact.
Over two years, millions around the world died from the Spanish flu. There were three waves, the second of which was the most deadly. We may not suffer to the same extent, but this coronavirus crisis could last for months. By the end of it, you may know someone who passed away due to COVID-19(20).
Allow me to indulge a philosophical thought...
Modern Australian society is largely built around the concepts of humanism and secularism, which teach us that we control our own fates (as opposed to some supernatural force). And so some sections of our society operate with a certain kind of invincibility -- and they don't feel compelled to heed the warnings coming from doctors and scientists. But human beings are, clearly, fragile and vulnerable. And in order for large portions of society to survive, some of us (the young and the healthy) need to help the others (the old and the vulnerable).
This is the point of social distancing.
I lie in bed at night paralysed by the thought of what is to come. The devastation it has already wreaked on us, across every area of our lives, is immense and goes beyond borders. Weddings are being called off, businesses ruined, jobs lost, bankruptcies declared...
How much worse will it get?
In a few weeks, I will be seeing patients who might need my services and I will also have to put my own life at risk. I will possibly have to say goodbye to my family and self-isolate and quarantine, unable to be near them for months. I will hug my daughters and my wife. I will hold them close, not knowing if it will be the last time for a long time.
My colleague has already shared his last meal with his family before going into self-isolation. I think of how he will see and hear his son playing, but he won't be able to reach out to him if he’s fallen. I think of how he will miss months of seeing his son grow up. He won't be able to feel the comforting touch of his family to console him as he fights this war.
Please. Listen to our cries for self-isolation and quarantine.
Please stay at home and help us help you. We plead to you. We beg you.
Australia, we are in this war together.