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“History will tell whether we have learned our lesson. Human behavior can shape our path and change our future. Cohesive local and global initiatives, pandemic and ecological committees, as well as public and private corporations need to work together in mutual cooperation, regardless of geopolitics, to secure success."”
Editor’s Note: Auburn’s Harbert College of Business recently contacted members of our Physicians Executive MBA (PEMBA) program to find out how the front lines of health care delivery have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. What follows is Dr. Williams’ first-hand account.
The signs were there for those who listened. Scattered news media, pandemic experts and scientists tried to warn us. Smug in the comforts of my own life, it resonated in the distant parts of my gray matter, but did not make the “urgent” list until March 9. Taking a much-needed family vacation, we were told on arrival that a hotel employee had taken ill with COVID-19, promptly followed by complete shutdown of all facilities.
Dr. Kim J. Williams
I returned home to negative pressure rooms, N-95 masks, face shields and gowns, all creating a disconnect to the people I signed up to serve. My healthy patients returned sick, deprived of oxygen and alone. “What a strange sight we must be,” I thought to myself as we donned and doffed our PPEs. Scared to touch our patients, we did so anyway, sometimes providing them the only comfort they would have as administrative procedures increasingly limited outside contact in an effort to protect us and our community resources.
The eerie quietness of the hospital’s pulse, once a welcome change, became an environment of apprehension and fear for both patients and staff alike. It was touted as “another flu,” as people initially failed to understand that the human genome had never seen anything like this before. We had no antibodies to protect us when attacked and thus the virus replicated very quickly and successfully in the human host.
We were slow to react. Pandemic committees had been dissolved, education and information was sparse and inconsistent. People were confused, as local governments fended for themselves based on an incomplete database. Much of the timely knowledge I obtained was from a private Facebook page, EMDOCS, representing some 25,000 emergency room physicians. Hospitals themselves struggled between safety of personnel and public image.
I felt privileged to be surrounded by a well-prepared, empathetic, progressive leadership in my own community, but feared for my colleagues who were not as fortunate. It seemed that greed, power and lack of preparedness bought out the worse in us and it felt suffocating.
East Alabama Medical Center, Opelika, AL
I needed to reassess. I did not need to look far. Messages of hope, thanks and well-being flooded my email and lit up my phone. My medical director allowed me to take a brief medical leave due to coexisting illness, as my colleagues without complaint struggled to fill my shifts. Neighbors placed ribbons of support on their mailboxes and brought or made us masks. Others decorated the outside of the hospital with lights.
I spent time reconnecting to my son and husband and listening to the quietness. It gave me hope that soon I would awake once more to 10 children laughing in my living room and messing up my kitchen. That I could hug my family without a computer interface and that PPEs would become folklore.
COVID-19 has its own timeline, and we must respect it. All of us by now know someone who has been affected tragically. There is no cure, no vaccine, and no current consistently reliable antibody test, which we believe—but are not certain—will identify those who are immune. Our knowledge is still in its infancy.
What we can do to fight, however, is found in the tenacity of the human spirit. Listen to medical and local experts, avoid close contacts with others, wear masks when out in public. Social distancing is not society distancing; we all need to be in this together.
History will tell whether we have learned our lesson. Human behavior can shape our path and change our future. Cohesive local and global initiatives, pandemic and ecological committees, as well as public and private corporations need to work together in mutual cooperation, regardless of geopolitics, to secure success.
Cheap? No, but worth fighting for.
Dr. Williams is an emergency room physician at East Alabama Medical Center.