Mr. G struggles to breathe, taking in short gasps of air as his chest rises then falls quickly. His oxygen level dips below 70 percent, but he’s still awake and responds appropriately to commands. Any other time we would immediately intubate — put a breathing tube into his large airway, place him on a ventilator — but this is a unique circumstance.Intubation carries a great risk to this elderly man: He may never come off the machine.
We contemplate turning him onto his stomach. A week prior in Italy, some success was found with this method. Should we start another antibiotic? What about high-dose steroids? I must hurriedly decide, as there’s another patient whose ventilator needs adjusting. And what about the 65-year-old woman waiting to be seen, her oxygen level also low? Family members are not allowed in the Emergency Room; mine may be the last voice my patients ever hear. Decisions.
That was the situation I faced in early March 2020 — in the Bronx. In New York City — at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the virus spread relentlessly throughout the rest of the country. At the time, treatment options were opaque, and leadership unforthcoming. We battled a perfect virus that wreaked havoc on a community already impoverished, and a nation already divided. If we had prepared for this earlier, how many lives could have been saved?
Two months later, police killed another black man. This time on video, beamed to the world. Undeniable evidence. Yet, it spurred further division. Criticisms of the right to protest, the right to dictate the worth of one’s body. I marched the streets of New York City, chanting along with others about our fellow Americans’ right to be alive. This, too, was one of many challenges we faced in a troubling year.
As we reflect on 2020, I’d like to share a gift for Christmas: that we might move closer toward a society that focuses on respect — one built on empathy, listening to those in need. One needn’t be a front-liner to contribute. It is a gift each of us can provide.
Chilembwe Mason ’98 is emergency medicine physician at BronxCare Health System, in New York. He was featured in an episode of the LMU Magazine Off Press podcast as the coronavirus first spread through Bronx neighborhoods in spring 2020.