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'Before you call me a hero, here's what you should know': Doctor working in Coronavirus unit

A doctor who worked in wards dedicated to victims of the pandemic recounts his experience and his thoughts about it.

'Before you call me a hero, here's what you should know': Doctor working in Coronavirus unit
Cover Image Source: Getty Images (representative)

Dr. Ethan Sobol doesn't want to be called a hero for serving on the frontlines in our fight against the pandemic. Instead, he'd like to point you toward those who—in his opinion—are better qualified for the title and the respect and admiration that comes with it. Like Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist in China who raised alarms about the virus long before the rest of the world grasped its seriousness. And those deemed essential workers who put themselves at risk every day to make our lives easier. And those healthcare professionals who, unlike him, did not volunteer for the emotionally and physically grueling time in the "COVID wards."


As an ophthalmology resident himself, Dr. Sobol was inspired by Dr. Wenliang to choose to serve in these wards simply because it was the right thing to do. The time he spent treating infected patients and his life outside the ward—where medical professionals like him are being hailed "heroes" by passersby—came with a myriad of conflicting emotional states and much to think about. "As the nights went on, I learned more and more about the disease named 'COVID-19.' It led to some unexpected outcomes and some puzzling findings. Patients might appear fine, then rapidly decompensate. There were blood clots. Escalating inflammatory markers heralded the onset of end-organ failure and in many cases, death," he wrote of his experience for HuffPost.



"We gave hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin, but then we stopped the azithromycin based on new evidence. Patients were enrolled in what seemed like mysterious trials of viral replication inhibitors and immunotherapies. Was any of it working? I could hardly tell," Dr. Sobol continued. He described how being head-to-toe in PPE made it almost impossible to communicate with patients, especially since the patients themselves had on masks and tubes attached to them.


Although words of gratitude from passersby and the routine 7:00 p.m. applause and cheering for health care workers briefly instilled a sense of pride, Dr. Sobol explained, the elation and pride were short-lived due to the deaths of those around him. "I found out that Mr. F, one of the doormen in my old building, a hospital-owned apartment building filled with young physicians, had died from the coronavirus. My feelings of pride suddenly turned to guilt. Had we done this to him? As unwitting vectors of this virus, moving to and from the hospital, perhaps we had exposed him. If not for us, I could not help but think, he would still be alive," he wrote.



"He had greeted me on countless late nights as I hurried to and from one of the hospitals while on call. He had delivered our packages, accepted our food deliveries, called up as friends had arrived. Those days are over now. There is no more routine ophthalmology, no more social gatherings, and more horrifying of all, there is no more Mr. F. This is the reality of the virus — it kills those that are more vulnerable, those that we too often walk past," Dr. Sobol lamented. "To me, it was a privilege to volunteer on the so-called front lines. First and foremost, it was a choice — but for many other physicians and nurses, it has not been," he continued.


He also acknowledged the countless essential workers who've had to work through his pandemic even as their roles transformed from what it was, to one of daily risk and fear of infection. "The hero who worked as a doorman in my building was one of them, and so many of my patients were, as well. The more work I did in the hospital, the more I became humbled by the tremendous work that others were doing, the ones who could not take a break until the pandemic has ended," Dr. Sobol stated. "I'm simply glad to have played a part. But the next time someone calls me a hero, I hope I am quick enough to respond, "I am not the hero, but let me tell you about some people who are..."


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