An ER doctor in New York's COVID-19 hotbed shares what life is like in his hospital right now

We've known it was coming, that it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus crisis wave hit American hospitals. But as the vast majority of us are holed up at home, we don't have any way of knowing what that wave looks like on the front line unless someone tells us.

Yesterday, the Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Craig Spencer, offered us a glimpse of what healthcare workers are currently facing in New York.


Dr. Spencer is no stranger to infectious disease outbreaks. He himself contracted Ebola while helping treat people in West Africa and survived it. He's seen and experienced a lot, and he has already explained why extreme social distancing is so important right now, but his first-hand account of what doctors and nurses are experiencing is a sobering reminder of why we can't let up.

He wrote:

"Many of you asked what it was like in the ER right now. I want to share a bit with you. Please RT:

A Day in the Life of an ER Doc - A Brief Dispatch from the #COVID19 Frontline:

Wake up at 6:30am. Priority is making a big pot of coffee for the whole day, because the place by the hospital is closed. The Starbucks too. It's all closed.

On the walk, it feels like Sunday. No one is out. Might be the freezing rain. Or it's early. Regardless, that's good.

Walk in for your 8am shift: Immediately struck by how the calm of the early morning city streets is immediately transformed. The bright fluorescent lights of the ER reflect off everyone's protective goggles. There is a cacophony of coughing. You stop. Mask up. Walk in.

You take signout from the previous team, but nearly every patient is the same, young & old:

Cough, shortness of breath, fever.

They are really worried about one patient. Very short of breath, on the maximum amount of oxygen we can give, but still breathing fast.

You immediately assess this patient. It's clear what this is, and what needs to happen. You have a long and honest discussion with the patient and family over the phone. It's best to put her on life support now, before things get much worse. You're getting set up for that, but...

You're notified of another really sick patient coming in. You rush over. They're also extremely sick, vomiting. They need to be put on life support as well. You bring them back. Two patients, in rooms right next to each other, both getting a breathing tube. It's not even 10am yet

For the rest of your shift, nearly every hour, you get paged:

Stat notification: Very sick patient, short of breath, fever. Oxygen 88%.

Stat notification: Low blood pressure, short of breath, low oxygen.

Stat notification: Low oxygen, can't breath. Fever.

All day...

Sometime in the afternoon you recognize you haven't drank any water. You're afraid to take off the mask. It's the only thing that protects you. Surely you can last a little longer - in West Africa during Ebola, you spent hours in a hot suit without water. One more patient...

By late afternoon, you need to eat. Restaurant across the street is closed. Right, everything is closed. But thankfully the hospital cafeteria is open. You grab something, wash your hands (twice), cautiously take off your mask, & eat as fast as you can. Go back. Mask up. Walk in.

Nearly everyone you see today is the same. We assume everyone is #COVIDー19. We wear gowns, goggles, and masks at every encounter. All day. It's the only way to be safe. Where did all the heart attacks and appendicitis patients go? It's all COVID.

When your shift ends, you sign out to the oncoming team. It's all #COVIDー19. Over the past week, we've all learned the signs - low oxygen, lymphopenia, elevated D-dimer.

You share concerns of friends throughout the city without PPE. Hospitals running out of ventilators.

Before you leave, you wipe EVERYTHING down. Your phone. Your badge. Your wallet. Your coffee mug. All of it. Drown it in bleach. Everything in a bag. Take no chances.

Sure you got it all??? Wipe it down again. Can't be too careful.

You walk out and take off your mask. You feel naked and exposed. It's still raining, but you want to walk home. Feels safer than the subway or bus, plus you need to decompress.

The streets are empty. This feels nothing like what is happening inside. Maybe people don't know???

You get home. You strip in the hallway (it's ok, your neighbors know what you do). Everything in a bag. Your wife tries to keep your toddler away, but she hasn't seen you in days, so it's really hard. Run to the shower. Rinse it all away. Never happier. Time for family.

You reflect on the fact that it's really hard to understand how bad this is - and how bad it's going to be - if all you see are empty streets.

Hospitals are nearing capacity. We are running out of ventilators. Ambulance sirens don't stop.

Everyone we see today was infected a week ago, or more. The numbers will undoubtedly skyrocket overnight, as they have every night the past few days. More will come to the ER. More will be stat notifications. More will be put on a ventilator.

We were too late to stop this virus. Full stop. But we can slow it's spread. The virus can't infect those it never meets. Stay inside. Social distancing is the only thing that will save us now. I don't care as much about the economic impact as I do about our ability to save lives.

You might hear people saying it isn't real. It is.

You might hear people saying it isn't bad. It is.

You might hear people saying it can't take you down. It can.

I survived Ebola. I fear #COVIDー19.

Do your part. Stay home. Stay safe.

And every day I'll come to work for you."

Thank you, Dr. Spencer, and all of the doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel who are giving their all and putting their lives on the line to save others. You are true American heroes.

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."