'I Don't Know Exactly What I'm Going Into' — Maine Surgeon Lends Hand In New York's COVID-19 Efforts

Apr 6, 2020

The state of New York has issued an urgent call for experienced medical personnel to help with the surge of COVID-19 cases that have been filling hospitals for several weeks now. One of those who is answering that call is a trauma surgeon and critical care specialist from Portland.

Laura Withers typically spends half the year working in Maine and the other half volunteering around the world. On Tuesday, she’ll begin a three-week stint at Long Island Jewish Hospital.

Withers spoke with Maine Public Radio News about the assignment.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Laura Withers (left) on a mission to Papua New Guinea with Doctors Without Borders.
Credit Courtesy photo

“This is the first time I’ve actually responded to an area in the United States.

“I know that they’re strapped for both providers and for supplies, and that they’ve called for help on the national level. And that they’re standing up everyone they can in their hospital to try and optimize their response. It’s like, I don’t know exactly what I’m going into. And I’m going there to do my best and to help in whatever way they need.

“I’ve always wanted to be helpful in places that truly need it. And I also feel like I’ve been extremely fortunate to have people teach me, to show me good and interesting things and to make me feel like a citizen of the world. I’ve got little practical concerns, like am I going to get lost on the way to the cafeteria? And then management concerns — I think I’m very worried about having adequate supplies to take care of patients. And then I’m walking into a truly overwhelming situation knowing that people are dying. And that there are lots of individual battles that I’m going to lose.

Laura Withers teaches CPR in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Credit Courtesy photo

“So I know that they will offer me some form of PPE and I will probably be fit-tested for appropriate masks and/or given a hood device during my orientation, and I’ll keep that throughout my stay. It almost certainly won’t be what would be considered optimal under normal conditions, but I know that every place is doing the best they can. I had ordered six N95 masks and I will take those with me so that I have a supply as well.

“There’s a risk to myself. And I think this time it feels different than a lot of the risks in the past. It is that unseen virus in the air all around you that you can’t confront in a direct way. You get used to taking a certain amount of risk and to just living with that. And I know I would feel worse — no matter what the outcome is, I know I would feel terrible if I didn’t go there and do what I’ve been trained and taught to do. So I accept that the risk is out there and that it’s real, and that I am going to do everything I can to stay safe and also everything I can to help.”

Withers says she'll be keeping a close eye on the situation in Maine, and if her help is needed here she says she will return. We plan on checking back with her as time allows.