June 14, 2020 Editor

Doctors Are Covid’s First Historians

Since March, 40 physicians have created a record of a pandemic in which “grief was the overwhelming theme.”

By Ron Suskind, Illustrations by Lilli Carré

June 12, 2020

Ron Suskind is the author of six books including, most recently, “Life, Animated.”

photo above: Two doctors (Kelly Griffin and Lindsay Lief) discussing fighting COVID-19

WN: This article is simply riveting; letting us into a world of COVID-19 care in two hospitals where doctors are stretched to the breaking point. We non-medical people have no idea . . . Though we’re invited to listen in to the agony . . .

And the Trump Administration is fiddling not only as the U.S. burns; but as medical care practitioners face daily burnout with many unknown future symptoms and current fears such as PTSD, such as infecting loved ones; such as infecting themselves; etc.

Then there are the COVID-19 Holocaust Deniers willingly throwing all caution to the winds–with Ultra-Insensitive Trump willing to sacrifice countless lives, not least medical service providers’ and hospital staff lives, to get re-elected . . .

Please also visit: “The New Stability” – a dark and insightful perspective from a COVID-19 Doctor.


How are you feeling?

She’s the head of an emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian, a huge hospital at the center of the coronavirus pandemic. She’s talking to a close colleague and friend who is a veteran emergency room doctor.

I’m sure I’m feeling the same as you are about the terrible news about Lorna … It’s unimaginable.

Dr. Lorna Breen, head of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian’s Allen campus in Upper Manhattan, killed herself the previous night. It’s a Monday morning in late April. Many department chiefs know it was a suicide, but aren’t permitted to say — the family’s told the hospital it doesn’t want that information released. Both know that their friend Lorna had Covid-19 and recovered about a week ago.

Sounds like it’s Covid complications.

He says this with a slightest uptick of question on the last word. She looks down.

There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s just incredibly sad. Emergency (Department Chief)
My God, she was so young. It’s hard to wrap your head around. ( Her colleague)
It seems like our west campuses have been hit incredibly hard. They lost one of their beloved emergency department nurses. ( Emergency Department Chief)
Yeah. ( Her colleague)
And, umm, they just lost one of their care coordinators over the weekend. (Emergency Department Chief)

A long pause. She sighs. Then he sighs. And they both begin to cry.

Take a break from this bracing, terrifying, deeply unsettling moment of change and challenge to think like a historian. Which “eyes” from this clearly consequential time will scholars seek; whose perspective — built, as perspectives are, from truths ranging from the widely known and broadly experienced to the personally felt — will be most instructive for history’s record?

A safe bet: doctors and nurses treating Covid-19.

They are, of course, like everyone: wives and husbands, parents and children; many are immigrants. They worry about what’s ahead, and their loved ones, and — with much more intensity than the rest of us — whether they’ll be infected, infect others, or will die.

They also are the first expert eyes to really see this nasty, clever virus up close, and feel its strength in hand-to-hand combat. They fight with it each day in front of frightened patients who are praying for victory and who, if conscious, try to detect how the battle is proceeding through subtle tonalities in what the doctors say, because what they tell a patient is not always all that they know or feel.

That’s what they reveal to the work friend, that trusted soundboard at a shift change, when they exhale and share a moment with the colleague about your condition, your prospects, the situation at hand. That’s also where you’d get a good glimpse of a single life’s fortunes from those who, at this moment, most poignantly experience the interplay between our greatly-altered daily rhythms and a virus that so savagely fells its victims. Someday, a historian will kill for that.

And right now — in a country all but crying out for contextualized truths to help everyone live their lives — hearing those private conversations would come in mighty handy.

But they are devilishly difficult to capture. When people talk to journalists or to someone, like a boss, for whom expression carries consequences — or to virtually anyone on the post-and-present digital landscape — their words take on a performative and transactional quality, where audience matters, as does reaction and effect. It’s not the way we talk to close friends. That’s our real voice, the authentic one, which rests on familiarity and trust.

So I took a digital platform I’d built for autistic people like my son to engage with their friends, a conversation catcher of sorts, to enter that special zone of intimacy — a technology that needs to be operated with particular care as to privacy and disclosure. Then my team and I brought aboard 40 doctors in the thick of the struggle: 20 from NewYork-Presbyterian and 20 from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, both of which have been enduring a battle with the disease that other cities are likely to face.

In late March, each doctor found a trusted colleague and paired off for regular encounters on the platform, called BongoMedia, where they sit, usually at home — their faces side-by-side, like on Zoom — for a 10-minute session guided by preloaded questions that pop up on the screen every few minutes: How are You Feeling? What Do You Fear? What Are Your Hopes?

The questions are meant to start conversations, to help the doctors think and feel and explore together, the way friends do. The Bongo pairs get into just about everything — clinical, emotional, experiential, philosophical and powerfully predictive — in videos that are captured, but not released. To preserve privacy for those made public, we anonymized videos by morphing audio and masking faces, wrapping in only the context needed to understand what’s being said. Next stop, the nurses.

What has unfolded in a hundred sessions with doctors thus far — many lasting more than 10 minutes — is the gyrating crisis mapped to the day. As each city hits its peak, as bodies pile up in New York while Boston prepares for bigger blows, doctors are stunned by how quickly, and mysteriously, the virus kills. They are troubled by the way the elderly and poor fill their emergency rooms, guilt-ridden for feeling relief at not being in otherwise high-risk categories and fearful about how the past weeks have shaken them.

As the country reopens for the summer, with cases plateauing in some states, rising precipitously in others, what these doctors are facing, what they’re learning and how they’re reacting are leading indicators of where we’re heading. Hear them talk to close friends, and you get a sound diagnosis of America’s condition, its prospects and risks and underlying strength.

Please click on: Physicians Pandemic Record: Grief


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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.