COVID-19 Update from Dr. Smith: 4/24/20

Each day during the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Craig Smith, Chair of the Department of Surgery, sends an update to faculty and staff about pandemic response and priorities. Stay up to date with us.

Dear Colleagues,

You may recall that all “non-essential” research at Columbia University was shut down at the same time elective surgery was shut down.  Reversing that action is another part of the restarting process.  At the outset, “essential” was defined narrowly, and everything stopped.  People’s life work was suspended.  Elaborate experimental systems were protectively decommissioned, if possible, or discarded.  At the time of shutdown I wondered why we didn’t declare everything essential, by virtue of association with the clinical importance of VP&S, until I learned that some of our scientists much preferred to shut down indefinitely.  Similarly, a surprising diversity of motivations spilled out when redeployment was discussed.  Among the willing, many volunteers found ways to be useful supporting the clinical mission.  Now, the race is on to reopen all of the research programs that don’t prefer hibernation.  There are grants to apply for, when many deadlines have passed or are awkwardly imminent.  Many animal colonies need to be reestablished at a time when suppliers can’t respond in volume.  Some labs may need to start over with breeding pairs, relying on rabbits to do what rabbits do.  Crowded labs need to be reconfigured consistent with social distancing.  A tedious accounting process is required to document for NIH how grant funds are being managed during the interruption, which includes accounting for time each investigator spent redeployed.  This anticipates the need to justify no-cost extensions and carry-over requests.  As a national funding source, NIH prefers to be insensitive to regional differences when considering such requests, so CU will be lobbying to have epicenter investigators receive special consideration.  The overriding goal is to keep us solvent and scientifically productive. 

Ramadan begins today.  This year, more than most, I struggle to remember why we allow social, political, and religious trivialities to divide us.  If ever there was a more common foe!  Recklessly, I will risk condemnation by all sides for appropriation and apostasy:  “We are all born with spiritual wings, Islam simply reminds us how to fly.” (A Helwa)  That is an admirable sentiment that pauses a micron short of stating that there is more than one way to fly.  At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic we naively assumed that the way to fly intubated patients was to follow protocols for treatment of ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome).  Monotherapism was quickly sundered.  This virus destroys the lungs and damages many other organs for reasons we don’t yet understand, and trying every treatment we can imagine has done little to improve the appalling mortality in intubated patients.  If ever there was a time to be open-minded about ways to fly!  Here’s another appropriation, attributed variously to Muhammad and al-Bukhari:  "When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained."  Who can argue with that?  Together, we’ll get past the cruelest month.

Craig R. Smith, MD
Chair, Department of Surgery
Surgeon-in-Chief, NYP/CUIMC

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