COVID-19 Update from Dr. Smith: 4/25/20

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,

In my discussion of the shutdown and restart in research yesterday, I devoted too many words to the surprising immediate reactions of a few people who had nothing to do with our Department. My intent was to emphasize the unique challenges facing researchers across the University.   Even the few may feel differently now.  Note to self:  Lighten up, Professor and Chairman.  There is no textbook that contains the correct immediate response to shattering events.  None of us have been through anything like this before.

This is for anyone who missed what went down at the Braskem petrochemical plant in Marcus Hook, PA.  The plant makes polypropylene, a key raw material in the manufacture of PPE.  Think back to March 23rd.  We were in the exponential part of our surge with no plateau in sight, grappling with frightening shortages of PPE.  Concerned that workers catching coronavirus might slow down polypropylene production, 43 volunteer employees moved into the plant on 3/23, with air mattresses and clothing under their arms.  They worked alternating 12-hour shifts.  In between, they cooked, cleaned, converted offices to snug bedrooms, and used the gym like it had never been used before.  Family members staged a drive-by rally on day 14.  All 43 emerged healthy and victorious after 28 days.  When interviewed, they said they were just happy to help.

On 9/11 my first operation was just getting underway when the first plane hit the North tower.  I watched the second plane hit the South tower just before I scrubbed.  I was finishing up when the anesthesiologist relayed the news that the towers had fallen.  I canceled my second case and sent him home.  His son worked in the North tower and had taken the day off for his father’s surgery.  In the hallways I encountered housekeeping staff urgently tightening sheets on stretchers.  From my office I saw empty streets, the empty bridge, and jet-fighter finger-fours flying low over the Hudson on a piercingly beautiful day.  Everyone stood by until dusk, waiting for injured survivors that never came.  I’ve always thought of my first case that day as my Rip Van Winkle patient.  He went to sleep in one world, and woke up in another.  Beginning late that day he was told repeatedly about the events he’d missed, but it took him days to understand that it was real.  Today, patients fortunate enough to survive weeks of mechanical ventilation in our ICUs are also Rip Van Winkles.  So are we all, minus the sleeping part.  The eponymous Rip missed 20 years, including the American Revolution.  My Rip missed 8 hours.  The new Rips are missing weeks, while decades happen.

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

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