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An Update On The Maine Doctor Volunteering At The U.S. Epicenter Of Pandemic

Kathy Willens
A patient is wheeled out of Elmhurst Hospital Center's emergency room on Tuesday, located within New York's Queens borough

Ten days ago Maine Public spoke with Portland surgeon and critical care Doctor Laura Withers, who was about to go to New York to volunteer in a COVID-19 intensive care unit at Long Island Jewish Hospital. Since then, she says she’s been working nights for 15 hours at a stretch. In her own words, Withers describes what it has been like to treat patients at the epicenter of the pandemic:

“Normally, it's the kind of place that would have everything anyone could want for some really cutting edge, top-of-the-line care. And now they are doing everything they can to direct every resource they have to just an overwhelmed system.

“You can tell that this disease really strikes everyone. Definitely we have some young patients and young, otherwise healthy, patients who have been badly, badly hurt by this disease and are also struggling for their lives.

“The first couple of nights that I was on, I don't think we went half an hour without an overhead page for an emergency somewhere on the floors or somewhere, sometimes in the main lobby of the hospital. You had a hard time even having a conversation sometimes because of all the overhead pages for emergencies happening.

“I'm not seeing as much of the early stages of patients coming through at a point where they're gasping for breath. I see them mostly already intubated.

“The ICUs are full, and they're going to stay full for weeks, maybe months, because it takes people such a long time to recover their ability to breathe on their own.

“It gets a little discouraging, feeling — you want to see patients make progress. It just feels better for your heart.

“We're trying to be there for the patients, too, and just take a minute to hold their hand, and even if they can't interact with us to to talk to them and let them know that there are people here and caring for them, but it's heartbreaking to not be able to have families come in, and to have patients this sick and and dying alone without that comfort of the people who love them surrounding them.

“And we're all scared, too, because we've seen just how bad the disease can be. But it's also nice to see the people who have recovered and hear them say, you know, it's worse than a normal cold, and it's an unpleasant disease, but there are people who do okay, too.

“Being here, for me, gives me a little bit of a sense of peace about my role, but the people who have had this disease sort of sweep into their lives, whether it's the patients or the health care workers or the people who are cleaning the hospitals or the people at the grocery stores who have had to drastically change the way they work. So many people out there still being truly brave and getting it done when everything is completely out of their control. And it's the sort of reaction of New Yorkers and, I think, this country as a whole.”

Willis Ryder Arnold produced this story.

If you have a story to share about life during the pandemic, write to Maine Public at TellMeMore@mainepublic.org and let us know the best way to reach you.