I land at Newark Liberty International Airport at 5:00 p.m. on March 7, 2020. Just a day earlier, signs about a rapidly spreading coronavirus – and how to prevent its spread — were plastered all over the airports in the developing country of Angola. “Welcome Home!” is the only sign I see here in Newark.
As if it were fateful clockwork the next morning, I would have my first patient encounter coming in for the “coronavirus.”
I work as an Emergency Room physician, but not for just one hospital system. Once I discovered my love of traveling, which I and my fellow travelers would call monsooning (or did it discover me?) just before starting medical school — I had to find a way to be both a doctor and a frequent traveler. Per diem shifts enable me to keep up a rigorous (some, wrongly, would snide as “ridiculous”) pace of international travel while also practicing emergency medicine: the rapid diagnosis, treatment, and disposition of people likely having one of, if not the worst day of their lives.
And during many of a late night after such a shift during the first wave of the pandemic, I would sit shell-shocked in front of a screen, phone or a monitor, mindlessly scrolling for information that had not yet existed. Spending months on the uncharted waters of the first pandemic of our generation, we struggled with how this was not something anyone could easily Google or Wikipedia their way out of. Whatever little we knew about this virus on the frontline was already more than anything you could find online.
The nightmares I thought I left behind at work would return in my sleep. And when they’re not of work, recurring nightmares still fool me into believing I’m back in college or medical school, and I had totally forgotten about a course or exam I needed to study for all year. Even startling myself awake to reassure myself that the syndrome of feeling like an imposter back in school should long be over, an insecurity remained over whether I may have missed something that could have altered an outcome for the better. Another life that could have been saved.
During the early months of COVID-19, my status as a per diem doctor allowed me to work in seven Emergency Rooms across four of the five New York City boroughs. For someone who everyday found himself in a different borough in a different hospital system — unlike my full-time colleagues who felt confined to the perspective of working within a single hospital system — I was free to answer early their perennial question “I wonder if that other hospital is doing better than we are?” Within the first fortnight of March 2020, I viscerally appreciated how every hospital across the city – private or public – were lacking PPE, facing testing shortages, and struggled with their administration trying to make decisions during a time when decisions were impossible to predict. When I bore witness to how this was a city-wide issue, I knew the rest of the country would not be prepared. Ultimately, we would all be experiencing the same thing, facing down the same unknown, with nobody but each other helping us stay afloat. We needed each other and needed to endure this together.
And if we could not be as confident of the outcome for any of our hospitals, let alone our patients during this pandemic, how could we fully ascertain the risk of whether we would come out of this unscathed? And once it struck me there was no guarantee we would make it out of the pandemic alive either, I began to write more. I wrote not for you, but for me. I wrote by habit. Or, if the worst were to happen, I wrote for whomever would be left to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Every moment put to virtual paper was confirmation, an affirmation to myself, that I was still alive.
This pandemic happened. Those moments, captured on a break by hasty thumbs or recalled in my apartment after a death-washed double shift, happened. I lived them. I lived through them. I live to write this. I have a right to live.
Now that these moments are memory, and we look together on what we survived and toward whatever comes next, I think I was writing for us all along.
Adapted from The Monsoon Diaries: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing from the ER Frontlines to the Far Reaches of the World by Dr. Calvin Sun. Copyright © 2022 by Calvin Sun. Used by permission of Harper Horizon.