COVID-19 Update from Dr. Smith: 5/05/20

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,

On this sunny Cinco de Mayo, why not celebrate victories? Whether we’re as outnumbered by the coronavirus as Zaragoza was by the French at Puebla depends on fanciful assumptions about relative biomass, but we have felt outnumbered. Yesterday was the second musical event organized by one of our Surgery Chief Residents, featuring stunningly professional performances in voice, on piano and strings by faculty and staff from several Departments. One of our surgeons stole the most applause by joining the final chorus in his wheelchair. Many weeks ago he appeared to be recovering well from Covid-19, then went rapidly from intubation to a harrowing ICU stay on ECMO. Even though we’ve won far more than we’ve lost, measured against the true denominator, victories have been rare in his scenario.

In a coincidence of timing, on March 6, 2020 I received from my father a transcription of my grandfather’s WWI diary. It was in poor condition, very hard to read, and took a long time to transcribe. He was a young attorney from Cleveland, serving in the front lines as a Lieutenant in a unit from Alabama. As his young grandson I found him to be as gentle and taciturn as his diary. The horror and carnage of the trenches peeks out. Then I found these entries, describing events unknown until now:

[Feb 23, 1918] “Saturday—This is my first experience in my life in a hospital….I am told my temperature was over 104 Wed. eve. And that my left lung was in bad shape….I was placed near a window so I would get enough air.”

[Feb 26, 1918] “Tuesday—Told this AM by Capt Davis and also by Miss Deirmon that they are much surprised to find me alive. In view of experience with flu cases, they expected me to last between 36 & 48 hours when I came into hospital. Such a revelation makes any fellow think quite a little….”

It might make any fellow think quite a little…that my father wouldn’t be here, nor would I be writing these words, had Wilbur T. (“Hoke”) Smith not survived the trenches and the flu.

Before the Civil War in my mother’s family were the Boyces, who emigrated from Scotland through New Brunswick to a farm in Willoughby, Ohio. Based on a combination of county records and my grandmother’s oral history, we know that the smallpox epidemic of 1853 killed Joseph and Martha Boyce, along with William (age 1), John (age 3) and Mary (age 8). The terrified neighbors stayed far away from the farm. Early teenagers Joe and Jane survived, buried their family, and lived on. A victory for my mother and me.

Bringing my epidemic saga full circle, yesterday an ELISA assay revealed that I have anti-coronavirus antibody. In late February I was sicker than I have ever been, with relapsing fever and racking cough. When short of breath at night the sounds in my lungs made me think of bagpipes thrown to the ground. Assuming I had an unusually bad influenza, I carelessly worked every day as usual. As far as I’m aware, I didn’t infect others, but who knows? If true, thank my gift for social distancing.

Does it matter that Zaragoza died of illness several months after his victory at Puebla? It was still a stunning victory. On May 5, 1973 Secretariat burned up the track in the Kentucky Derby, winning the first leg of the Triple Crown in record time. I entered medical school that fall and wore a Secretariat t-shirt to each of my exams. The t-shirt didn’t survive. Wins balance losses. Victories bloom in cemetery soil.

Craig R. Smith, MD

Chair, Department of Surgery
Surgeon-in-Chief, NYP/CUIMC

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