Commentary

Volunteering during the pandemic: What doctors need to know


 

My commute

My hotel was about 20 minutes from the hospital. Well-meaning folks informed me that Hertz had free car rentals and Uber had discounts for health care workers. When I investigated these options, I found that only employees of certain hospitals were eligible. As a volunteer, I was not eligible.

Dr. Arghavan Salles and her colleagues in a hospital in Brooklyn, NY. Courtesy Arghavan Salles, MD

Dr. Arghavan Salles (far left) with other health care workers in the ICU where she was volunteering

I ultimately took Uber back and forth, and I was lucky that a few friends had sent me Uber gift cards to defray the costs. Most days, I paid about $20 each way, although 1 day there actually was “surge pricing.” The grand total for the trip was close to $800.

Many of the Uber drivers had put up plastic partitions – reminiscent of the plastic Dexter would use to contain his crime scenes – to increase their separation from their passengers. It was a bit eerie, but also somewhat welcome.

New normal

The actual work at the hospital in Brooklyn where I volunteered was different from usual practice in numerous ways. One of the things I immediately noticed was how difficult it was to get chest x-rays. After placing an emergent chest tube for a tension pneumothorax, it took about 6 hours to get a chest x-ray to assess placement.

Because code medications were needed much more frequently than normal times, these medications were kept in an open supply closet for ease of access. Many of the ventilators looked like they were from the 1970s. (They had been borrowed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

What was most distinct about this work was the sheer volume of deaths and dying patients -- at least one death on our unit occurred every day I was there -- and the way families communicated with their loved ones. Countless times I held my phone over the faces of my unconscious patients to let their family profess their love and beg them to fight. While I have had to deliver bad news over the phone many times in my career, I have never had to intrude on families’ last conversations with their dying loved ones or witness that conversation occurring via a tiny screen.

Reentry

In many ways, I am lucky that I do not do clinical work in my hometown. So while other volunteers were figuring out how many more vacation days they would have to use, or whether they would have to take unpaid leave, and when and how they would get tested, all I had to do was prepare to go back home and quarantine myself for a couple of weeks.

I used up 2 weeks of vacation to volunteer in New York, but luckily, I could resume my normal work the day after I returned home.

Obviously, living in the pandemic is unique to anything we have ever experienced. Recognizing that, I recorded video diaries the whole time I was in New York. I laughed (like when I tried to fit all of my PPE on my tiny head), and I cried – several times. I suppose 1 day I may actually watch them and be reminded of what it was like to have been able to serve in this historic moment. Until then, they will remain locked up on the same phone that served as the only communication vehicle between my patients and their loved ones.

Dr. Salles is a bariatric surgeon and is currently a Scholar in Residence at Stanford (Calif.) University.

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