What It’s Like to Be an E.R. Doctor Desperate for Personal Protective Equipment

In our new series What It’s Like, we speak with people from a wide range of backgrounds about how their lives have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For our first installment of this series, I spoke with Esther Choo, M.D., M.P.H., Emergency Medicine physician at the Center for Policy & Research in Emergency Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University. (The below exchange details Dr. Choo’s personal experience and perspective. She is not speaking on behalf of her organization.)

When Dr. Choo isn’t working in the ER, she’s an outspoken science communicator who developed a large following on social media through her passionate activism around issues related to equity in health care. Today, she’s using her platform—and appearing on shows on CNN and MSNBC—to encourage people to stay home to flatten the curve of the pandemic, as well as to raise awareness about the conditions on the ground for health care workers across the country, specifically calling attention to the fact that so many of our frontline workers are without necessary and life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves.

I sent Dr. Choo a series of questions over two separate emails, asking her about what her life is like now, how she and her colleagues are feeling, and why the PPE shortages are so dangerous. Below are her answers.

SELF: What’s a typical day like for you lately? How has your day-to-day work in the E.R. changed in the past month?

E.C.: On days when I’m in the E.R., we’re evaluating more and more patients with potential COVID-19, with cough and other respiratory symptoms, fever, fatigue, etc. On days not in the E.R., I—along with our whole department—am engaged in meetings about COVID-19-related clinical operations, discussing how we are adapting our existing disaster management plans to fit this pandemic.

SELF: What kind of work are hospitals and medical professionals doing to prepare for the rise in COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks?

E.C.: Everything has to change when you’re anticipating providing care on an unprecedented level, for a prolonged period of time. Hospitals are building out new wings, setting up tents outside, designing ways to quickly evaluate patients for COVID-19 with minimal risk to other patients or health care workers, converting operating rooms into intensive care units, and preparing for increased staffing needs.

SELF: What’s the general mood like at work right now? How are you and your coworkers handling this all emotionally?

E.C.: People are scared—in most ways we are like everyone else, concerned for our families and communities. But at the same time, I’m seeing people demonstrating a lot of courage and commitment. I have moments every day when I see people rise to the occasion to support their patients and colleagues and innovate in incredible ways, and am very inspired.

SELF: What steps are you taking in your personal life to stay safe and keep your family safe?

E.C.: Before each shift, I remove my rings and other jewelry and make sure my nails are super short. I’ve started leaving my stethoscope and white coat in my office. Anything that can carry virus that can go, goes. After each shift, I have an elaborate routine. I wash my hands up to my elbows, change into separate clothes, put my work clothes into a bag and change into a clean set of clothes. I wipe down everything—my badge, phone, pens—with disinfecting wipes. When I get home, I avoid my kids and put dirty clothes directly into the wash. I go into the shower and wash thoroughly and change again before I hug anyone. At some point, if I’m seeing multiple patients with COVID-19 in a shift, and particularly if I’m practicing without appropriate protective equipment, I may stay at work to avoid transmission to my family.

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