Tulane University School of Medicine, MS3
May 9, 2020
New Orleans, Louisiana
July 10, 2019
My friends were coming back from Costco when a surge of water quickly rose and inundated their Honda Accord. Did they need help? I asked. A tow truck would be coming a few hours later, and they would be fine.
“It’s a smart idea to get out of town, “ they told me.
There was no evacuation order, but Hurricane Barry was on target to arrive in New Orleans by Friday. The bad omens began the day before when flash flooding swept across the city. In Mid-city another friend of mine had his car flooded out for the second time in 3 years. The news predicted that the Mississippi would overtake the levies.
I was set to start my Family Medicine rotation in Deridder, a small town 6 hours away. It seemed sensible to leave early. Two blocks from my house a long line of cars had already formed. Napoleon Avenue was a strip of high ground, beside which flooded streets were lined by sunken cars. At the corner of Claiborne and Napoleon, Ochsner Baptist Hospital, formerly Memorial Medical Center, sat in a few feet of water. I passed Jefferson Davis Parkway, by then an urban bayou. A news team fixated on the roof of a hatchback Subaru that jutted a few inches above the water line. The image of that car circulated on the Washington Post.
Everything felt like a moment in history that I’d be remembering, when escape was still possible and disaster could be sidestepped. For the next few days in a rural hospital I was glued to the Weather Channel’s 24/7 coverage. The storm grew weaker and moved away from New Orleans, hitting Baton Rouge instead.
Few people will remember Hurricane Barry, or rather it will be remembered as a nuisance. In the story “The Boy who Cried Wolf”, the villagers make both type 1 and type 2 errors, in that order. I made a type 1 error.
Early March 2020.
That morning I wondered out loud why no cases had been reported in Louisiana when Texas and Denver had dozens. By 10:00 am we received news that Louisiana’s first case was reported at the VA. We glanced out toward the VA from the gynecology clinic. It was so close now.
Five of us, all students, walked from clinic to eat lunch at a pho restaurant before grand rounds. A Blackhawk helicopter took off from the roof of the hospital before sailing off. Then a woman in a passing car spotted our scrubs, screamed something unintelligible about hand sanitizer, laughed and drove on by. We chatted about the virus.
“You’re definitely playing this up the most,” my classmate told me.
“I’ve had coronavirus before. It’s not that bad.”
Of course we all have, I thought. CRAP viruses were responsible for viral URIs. Coronavirus, rhinovirus, adenovirus, and paramyxovirus. But the reports from Washington state were alarming. In 2003, 17 medical students in Hong Kong contracted SARS from a single patient with GI symptoms. The mass casualties in Italy wouldn’t make news for a few more weeks.
At the restaurant, I glared at a man who coughed three times without covering his mouth. Then I ordered a beef noodle bowl, the last thing I ever ate at a restaurant.
One week later.
Monday was my first day on Labor and Delivery and I met with a student who completed an overnight shift.
“Does admin know about this list?” she asked, pointing to a spreadsheet disseminated on Reddit. The spreadsheet showed a growing color-coordinated list of medical schools and their response to the pandemic. Red meant clerkships were postponed. Green meant no change.
Before the weekend my friend from the University of Pennsylvania told me that UPenn students were being removed clinical rotations. UPenn is part of a consortium of Ivy League schools, and other schools soon followed. In New Orleans, students were still essential healthcare workers. All green. A type 2 error.
I shrugged. The school’s admin hadn’t offered us guidance beyond the CDC’s recommendation to be 6 feet apart. I ran off to follow an intern check in with a patient before a C-section.
I returned to the office where students congregated only to be told to find a different room. The attending came by to keep students 6 feet apart. I found a lounge to study until the end of my shift.
At around noon we received the email. All clinical duties were suspended. A single day on L&D and 3rd year was essentially over.
Later that week.
I joined with a group of other student leaders in a conference room at school for a Zoom meeting with the admin.
Information was sparse, but we listened intently to the preliminary plan. We’re to finish 3rd year by Zoom and hope for the best in returning by the summer.
“Can we get guidance on whether students can travel home?” I asked.
No, the school wasn’t able to make recommendations. I fired off a quick text to a classmate that the school was not restricting travel, and they promptly hopped on a flight to fly home.
After the meeting, I walked back to the parking lot with a 4th year student. What a crazy end, we thought. “Since this will probably be the last time we see each other,” I said, “I wish you the best in residency and life. You’re going to be an amazing doctor.”
She laughed. I was wrong, she said. “We’ll see each other again.”
We haven’t and we likely won’t.
Day 1 of Self Isolation
I received an email telling me I’d worked with an attending in gynecology clinic who was ill and tested positive for CoVID-19. I was officially under 14-day quarantine. I checked the email’s recipients list and realize half of the other students in my rotation are CC’ed, including a classmate I told to fly home the previous day. They needed to be with family, they argued. They had grandparents to care for.