February 29th, 2020. A leap year. I buy a watch.
I bought this watch as a purely practical matter. It wasn’t meant to remind me of a significant life event. My brother-in-law was having a destination wedding in the Carribean the first week of April. My 40th birthday was coming up at the end of March so my family and I decided to take a long overdue vacation. My kindergartener was going to be a flower girl twice this spring since my brother was getting married in May. My wife had gotten passports for her and our baby son in anticipation of the kids’ first international trip.
In February I realized that my collection of vintage watches did not include an inexpensive, practical, and most of all, water resistant watch suitable for travel and the beach. I remembered going to WindUp Watch Fair a few months before and trying on a vintage styled watch that would be suitable for the occasion. I picked up a Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer, got a Cordura canvas strap from Esslinger to dress it up slightly and was ready to go.
Beginning of March 2020. My watch goes on a trip.
I also had a separate 40th birthday trip planned. I was to go out to Los Angeles to meet a major collector and show him a watch I had recently acquired. I was excited for the opportunity to examine his collection in return. I got an urgent call from the head of the surgery department the day before my flight.
“You have to cancel your nonessential office visits. The goal is to reduce the patient volume by 50%. This is meant to be a temporary measure to contain the virus. It’s probably going to be a couple weeks, maybe a month but we’re going to reassess it as we go along.”
My facebook physician groups had been blowing up with reports from Northern Italy. The doctors there were seeing overwhelming numbers of patients and the health care system had been strained to bursting. There were reports of multiple patients sharing a single ventilator and patients dying in the hallways for lack of care. There had been a “superspreader” event that week in my area with multiple people getting infected from a local person with no connection to Wuhan. “Community transmission,” or person-to-person spread, was on everyone’s mind. Yet there were very few cases so far.
After some hesitation and discussion with my wife, I go on the trip anyway. I bring a face mask to wear at the airport and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. My taxi driver in LA tells me his son has the flu and he thinks it might be COVID-19. He complains that his son goes to the gym too much to get fit to impress his girlfriend. The news on the television in my hotel room is about COVID-19 at the local airport.
The next morning I meet the collector. Delighted with my watch, he is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. He shares his research on the reference with me. I am nervous as I watch him sniff and wipe his nose. He senses my unease. “Allergies,” he says. I thoroughly wash my hands and wrists after our meeting. I go out to explore the shops of Beverly Hills. He calls me and tells me that he had some chills a few days ago and asks if that could be from some brown water that came out of his faucet. I tell him to call his doctor if he feels ill.
That night I am taking the redeye back to New York. I notice that the airport bathrooms have no soap left, and there are hand sanitizer dispensers in the waiting areas. I take a few squirts to refill my small travel size bottle before getting on the plane home.
Middle of March 2020. Climbing the mountain. I stop wearing my watch.
I have an operation scheduled today at the hospital. I walk in as usual, greet the patient and have her sign the consent form. I check off the boxes on my paperwork and start to walk over to the front desk. I am wearing my Hamilton on the Cordura strap. I receive a call from my office as I walk down the hallway.
“Unfortunately someone in our office has symptoms of COVID-19. Everyone who has been in the office with him for the past 48 hours is now under quarantine. Our medical director will be calling you.”
But I have a case now. What am I supposed to do?
“Cancel your surgery and go home.”
I tell the operating room manager at the front desk and bear the shocked looks of the operating room staff. I instruct them to tell the patient that we will call her to reschedule. The manager gives me an N95 mask which I put on. She reaches into her desk and pulls out a plastic face shield. “Take this,” she says, “you’ll need it when you get back.” I drive away but I am afraid to go home. I park at the bank. I try to call the health department but there is no answer. I am able to reach our chief medical officer, and later the head of infectious diseases. They give me instructions.
“Stay in your own room and use a designated bathroom. Do not go outside unless absolutely necessary. Avoid contact with others.”
What about my wife? My children?
“If you get sick they have probably already been exposed.”
My brother-in-law’s wedding is tomorrow. The Carribean trip has been cancelled and the legal ceremony may be the only ceremony we have. We agonize over the decision but ultimately my wife and children put on masks and go to the socially distanced, no hug, no touching ceremony. I spend the weekend at home trying carefully not to touch anything outside of my bedroom or designated bathroom. I wash my watch carefully with soap and water and put it away.
End of March. My birthday comes.
My 40th birthday is today. I had planned to have a birthday party at my favorite restaurant which is now closed. My wife prepares a special dinner and we eat with our families over Zoom. She surprises me after dinner with a birthday video from friends, family, and co-workers. My daughter laughs when she sees that I picked the pink birthday cake from the bakery.
Later, I see a plea on a facebook physician group. A doctor in New Jersey is very sick and close to being intubated and placed on a ventilator. He just got married a few months ago. His wife hasn’t been able to visit him and she is desperate for him to live. Another physician, his friend, is asking if anyone has a connection to the pharmaceutical company that makes Remdesivir. The medication is an Ebola treatment that has been repurposed under a compassionate use exemption from the FDA. There is no evidence yet that it works but we know from social media posts from Northern Italy that most people who are put on a ventilator will die. Someone says that their brother-in-law works for Gilead Sciences and will reach out.
I get emotional and cry for the first time since COVID-19 upended our lives.
April. The Peak.
Elective surgery is closed due to a state mandate. I am operating or doing procedures only when there is an emergency. I will not get a paycheck this month. Patients are afraid to leave their homes. My office is empty. Every bed in the hospital is occupied by a COVID-19 patient. My brother is on the front lines, having been reassigned by his training program to work the COVID-19 floors. His fiance has been on the front lines since the beginning as a hospital doctor. She is assigned to an old rehab unit that has been repurposed as a COVID hospice where she tries to ease people’s pain as they die.
I stay in touch with a friend who is a surgeon at a renowned hospital in Manhattan. He has been reassigned to a “platoon” consisting of himself and his trainees along with office staff and has been “deployed” to an emergency room in Brooklyn. He says the emergency room is at triple capacity and there are patients on ventilators in the hallway. Later I read in a surgeon magazine that my old boss is working in the same emergency room, wiping down beds, transporting patients, and doing CPR on dying people. I feel guilty that I am not doing more. I watch Andrew Cuomo on my phone as he talks about climbing the mountain, reaching the peak, and flattening the curve.
I get called to the emergency room. I had just finished dinner but now I won’t be able to do bedtime with our kids. I pull into the parking lot. It is dark outside. I reach over to the passenger seat and gingerly pick up a paper bag with a used N95 mask inside. I check the date. I last wore it four days ago so any virus on the surface should be dead by now. I pulled out a pair of goggles that my contractor neighbor gave me earlier that day but I curse under my breath when I realize that the plastic is too opaque to use. I open my trunk and pick up the plastic face shield that my operating room manager gave me the day I stopped wearing my watch.
I go over to the operating room to look for supplies. I see the custodian and give her a nod. She is wearing a full face respirator. Good for her. Those sold out months ago. I look around for a surgical cap to cover my hair, shoe covers, a plain surgical mask to try to keep my valuable N95 as clean as possible. These basic items are locked away because of shortages. I sigh and head over to the emergency room.
Normally in the ER there is one person in a spot, and not every spot is full. Now at the peak each spot holds two patients, with a third placed crosswise in front of them, and a fourth across the hallway. There are emergency medical technicians and paramedics standing in line with their stretchers filled with more patients. The staff has their heads down. I try yelling through my mask, asking where I could find the patients who need me but the normally pleasant desk clerk just shakes his head. I eventually find them and start the procedures.
My first patient is a middle aged woman. She is wearing an oxygen mask that has slipped down to her chin because she is weak and delirious. I put the oxygen mask back on her face to try to contain virus particles from spraying on me when she coughs. I open the kit and pull out the surgical face mask and gingerly place it over my N95 to protect it. I put on a bouffant hat and sterile gown and gloves and start the procedure. I am sweating from the double mask and it is hard to see through my face shield. My heart is pounding.
The next two patients are both intubated, meaning they have breathing tubes already inserted and are on ventilators. I breathe a little easier because I know that the virus would be funneled through a filter in the breathing tube instead of spreading through the air.
I walk back up to the operating room. I carefully cover my gloves with hand sanitizer and rub them together before taking them off. I wash my hands with soap and water and clean a countertop with medical grade sanitizing wipes. I remove my disposable face shield to clean before placing it on the countertop. I notice that the blue dye on the headband is beginning to run so I wipe it off as best I can. I wash my hands again. I pull off my bouffant and my face mask and toss them in the trash, leaving on my N95. I wash my hands again and then cover them with hand sanitizer. My old chairman used to call this the “belt and suspenders” approach.
I walk out to my car and put the plastic face shield on the other, in my mind, “clean” side of the trunk. Once in the car, I rub my hands with hand sanitizer, wait for it to dry, and take off my N95. I place it into the paper bag, cross off the original date, and write today’s date. I put the paper bag on the passenger seat and rub my hands with hand sanitizer again before I touch the steering wheel.
I leave my shoes outside the house. I roll up my pant legs and take off my socks. I go straight into the shower, opening and closing the bathroom door with my foot. I remove everything from my pockets and place them in the sink. I take a shower. I wash all the items in the sink with soap and water and put them on a towel in my bedroom to dry. I spray bleach in the sink. I put on clean clothes for the night. I tell my wife “everything is fine but the hospital is a little scary right now.”
The next day I have no patients in the office. I take the extra time to review my life insurance policy and make sure it is up to date. I had applied for extra life insurance after my son was born and now I e-mail my insurance agent asking when I will receive my policy number. I contact an estate attorney because I realize that I do not have a will. Later, I sit down with my wife and talk about how to handle our finances if I get sick and die.
I lay in bed that night and think about my children growing up without a father and my wife raising them without a husband. Then I think about my brother, his fiance, and my friend on his deployment in the emergency room in Brooklyn. I feel guilty that I only have to see it for an hour or two at a time. I think about my wife. She is a physician and has to go to her office tomorrow. I will pretend that she is safe because I need her to be. I don’t want to wake her up so I go downstairs and cry for a while at the kitchen table before heading back to bed. It is a long time before I fall asleep.
A week later. Someone that I know dies of COVID-19 for the first time.
May. Flattening the curve.
There is almost no surgery now. Our operating room nurses have been sent to work in the outdoor testing “COVID tent,” the emergency room, the intensive care unit. Most of them will eventually come down with the virus. Many other hospital “essential workers” will get sick. They are the custodians who clean the floors and countertops, the housekeepers who do the laundry and change the sheets, the porters who transport the patients, the dietary staff who bring people meals. Many of them are black or Hispanic and they are hit much harder than the relatively privileged physicians. Still, the bond amongst physicians is strong and each death is like losing a part of yourself. Someone in our physician facebook group starts compiling the names of the physicians who have died so far fighting the pandemic.
“Can someone verify that Dr. _______ died?”
“Yes, he was in our department. We moved him to a major medical center. He was on ECMO. We did everything we could for him.”
“Does he have a family?”
“Yes, he was married with two young kids.”
Two of our anesthesiologists get sick, one with mild symptoms. She attributes her recovery to her habit of eating raw garlic. The other anesthesiologist is sick for more than a month and I am worried. He wears a stainless steel Daytona. He sold every other watch in his collection to get it. It is his Grail, his Exit watch. Later he recovers and I am overjoyed to see him again.
Another anesthesiologist wears a Submariner. It always looks good on his wrist. Now when I see him he is wearing a full face respirator along with a hooded white zip up body suit. I had seen doctors on the news months before wearing the same outfit in Wuhan. Instead of a Rolex on his wrist, there is duct tape where the gloves meet the sleeves.
End of May. Phase 1. The survivors tell their stories.
The hospital is better. The numbers are going down every day. I get called to the emergency room and it is quiet. The ventilators are gone and most of the beds are empty. The clerk is smiling again behind his mask. I do my procedure and leave. My brother was supposed to get married this weekend but he has put it off for a year.
Every time I see someone I haven’t seen in a while I ask “How are you doing? How is your family?” I ask patients, co-workers, friends. A look is enough to get the meaning across. I hear their stories.
“I was in the hospital for a week but they sent me home on oxygen. My wife and teenage kids had the virus but they didn’t get sick. I think I got it at a party, there were fifteen of us there and twelve got sick, three of us were in the hospital and one died.”
“I live in the Bronx. I’ve had to officiate at 10 funerals in the past 2 weeks. It’s hard because of social distancing. There’s a short service just for the immediate family and that’s it.”
“I was at home for a month. I had nonstop fever and body aches then I had trouble breathing. I tried to lay on my stomach as much as I could because I heard being prone helps with the lungs. I’m trying to come back to work but I still have problems breathing. I was exhausted all the time but it’s starting to get better.”
“It was like the flu. I’m one of the lucky ones. I tested positive for antibodies so I gave blood so they can use it for convalescent plasma transfusions.”
“Eight people in my family died. We couldn’t have funerals because of the virus.”
“My neighbor’s brothers and sisters all died. She has a picture of all of them together at Christmas. Now it’s just her and their orphans. She’s taken them all in. The kids are having a lot of problems.”
“I was intubated for 2 months. I survived but I get short of breath walking from the car to the house. My wife and kids are helping me. I don’t know when I can work again.”
“My family was ok but my co-worker and her husband both died. The grandma died too, their child is with a neighbor now.”
I start keeping a list of names of people who I know that had COVID-19. I am up to 25.
Early June. Phase 2. I start to write for Beyond the Dial.
My office is open again. I am greeted at the door by a nurse in full personal protective equipment including a N95 mask, face shield, gown and gloves. She puts an infrared thermometer near my head and records the temperature and my name on a piece of paper. “Have you had any symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, cough, breathing problems? Any sick contacts?” I shake my head.
As the pandemic eases, elective surgery resumes and patients return to the office. My anesthesiologist has discarded his Wuhan outfit and is wearing just scrubs and an N95. It feels, somehow, casual. I am comforted when I see that he is wearing his Submariner again.
I see peaceful protesters as I drive home from the hospital one evening. I am relieved to see that they are wearing face masks. I now know to keep my N95 strap high on the crown of my head to prevent it from cutting into my nose. I know that the yellow top medical grade wipes leave a bleach residue on my face shield but the purple tops do not. I still have my small travel bottle of hand sanitizer from Los Angeles which I have refilled more times than I can count.
I am starting to think about wearing a watch again but I don’t want to deal with a wet canvas strap. My friend buys a beads of rice bracelet from the whimsically named “Mr. Beads” and I buy one too. It finally arrives and I am too impatient to set it aside for 4 days like an N95 mask. I google “how long to boil metal to sterilize it” and carefully boil it for 2 minutes on the stove. Later, as I talk about these bracelets in my RedBar Zoom meeting, Allen asks me to write a beads of rice bracelet buying guide for Beyond the Dial.
Late June. Phase 3. I put on a white coat.
I have been wearing my Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer on the Mr. Beads bracelet. It has joined my credit card, pen, phone, hand sanitizer bottle, keys, and hospital ID in the sink when I get into the shower after work. This week I wore a tie and shirt instead of scrubs for the first time. I spoke to the head of my hospital today and he says there have been almost no cases over the past few weeks. There has been no uptick from the protests. My office has stopped routine temperature checks on the staff.
Later in the week I put on a white coat for the first time. My office staff is talking about getting pizza for lunch on Friday. I go to the hospital in the afternoon to do an elective surgery. I see another surgeon, make a joke, and have a laugh as we walk the halls of our operating area. My patient today has been waiting for surgery since March. I tuck my watch in my pocket, scrub my hands, and perform the surgery. I listen to music and sing along under my breath as I cut and sew. Grim silence is for emergency surgery, not for today. I havent worked with this scrub technician in a while. He tells me he had COVID-19 but he barely noticed it and his family was ok. I add him to my list of names. We turn to other topics. The operation goes off without a hitch and the patient and her family are relieved that we have been able to do it at last.
My vintage watches remain in the safe deposit box for now. One day I will take them out and wear them again. Maybe when we get to phase 4.
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