Dr. Craig Spencer famously survived Ebola virus after working to save patients during an outbreak in Africa. Now, as he battles a new pandemic in New York each day, he says he fears the new coronavirus.
Spencer is an emergency room doctor, epidemiologist and director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Working now in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. ― in New York City, 15,597 cases had been recorded by Tuesday and 192 people had died ― Spencer shared a harrowing account of how he spends each day.
Describing his walk to work along empty streets, the doctor painted a grim image of coronavirus-era New York City.
When he arrives at the hospital, it’s a different picture: “The bright fluorescent lights of the ER reflect off everyone’s protective goggles. There is a cacophony of coughing. You stop. Mask up. Walk in.”
By afternoon, Spencer said, he remembers he hasn’t had anything to drink, but he’s too scared to take off his protective gear.
“You’re afraid to take off the mask. It’s the only thing that protects you. Surely you can last a little longer ― in West Africa during Ebola, you spent hours in a hot suit without water. One more patient,” he said. Eventually, he takes time to eat in the hospital cafeteria. Everywhere else is closed.
Nearly every patient is the same, he said. COVID-19.
Before he leaves, he wipes “EVERYTHING” down, Spencer said.
“Your phone. Your badge. Your wallet. Your coffee mug. All of it. Drown it in bleach. Everything in a bag. Take no chances. Sure you got it all??? Wipe is down again. Can’t be too careful.”
He walks home ― the subway and bus don’t feel safe, he said ― disconcerted by the empty streets. “Maybe people don’t know???” he wondered.
The ER doctor said he can understand how hard it may be for people to fully grasp how bad the situation is (and how bad it will be) when all they see are empty streets, but he implored people to listen: “Hospitals are nearing capacity. We are running out of ventilators. Ambulance sirens don’t stop.”
He, like other health experts, advised that the number of cases will continue to climb ― and pleaded with people to continue self-isolating to slow the spread.
“The numbers will undoubtedly skyrocket overnight, as they have every night the past few days,” he said.
“We were too late to stop this virus. Full stop. But we can slow its spread. The virus can’t infect those it never meets. Stay inside. Social distancing is the only thing that will save us now. I don’t care as much about the economic impact as I do about our ability to save lives.”
Spencer was the first and only person in New York to get Ebola virus in 2014. He worked for Doctors Without Borders at an Ebola treatment facility in Guinea, where he contracted the disease that ultimately killed more than 11,000 other people. While he was hospitalized with the virus, his liver started to fail, and he lost 20 pounds.
On Monday, he reminded people that he survived Ebola, but he is afraid of COVID-19.
He finished with just one request, in exchange for his efforts on the frontline.
“Do your part. Stay home. Stay safe. And every day I’ll come to work for you.”
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