NEW YORK CITY: One recent morning, Dr. Qusai Hammouri shaved close to ensure his medical safety mask would fit tight.
An onslaught of emotions gripped him on the way to the hospital in New York where he has volunteered to work in the intensive care unit (ICU).
He read the charts of the COVID-19 patients he would treat that day. Some were his age and, like him, they smoked and did not eat very healthily.
“Should I write my will? Today might be the end for me. What will people write in my obituary? ‘He was a nice guy. He volunteered at the ICU and ended up succumbing like his patients’,” he told Arab News while driving down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“It’s like going to war, jumping out of a plane. I realize these emotions aren’t helpful at this moment, but they’re there.”
Normally at this hour, people would be bustling into delis for coffee and bagels. New York’s 27,000 restaurants would be opening their doors.
Laundromat machines would be whirring to life and the smell of laundry wafting. Taxis would be whizzing by and honking.
Instead, Manhattan’s legendary traffic has all but vanished. A hush has fallen on every street, bridge and park.
It is broken only by the constant wail of sirens, echoing the calamity that continues to besiege this beloved city as it enters what many believe is its darkest hour. America’s largest, loudest city has turned into a shell.
“I’m looking forward to being helpful, if not in my classical medical way, at least in my more human way,” Hammouri said. “This is my way out of despair.”
Since the pandemic swept in, medical staff have been redeployed across all New York hospitals.
Hundreds of anesthesiologists, cardiologists and pulmonologists either continue to do ambulatory care via telemedicine, or were freed up to help at ICUs, emergency rooms or regular floors, depending on their skills or comfort level.
Hammouri is the director of pediatric orthopedics and a spine surgeon at Staten Island University hospital.
But as the initial trickle of COVID-19 patients turned into an avalanche that shook the city’s hospitals to their very foundations, he cancelled all surgeries and volunteered to help with the communication group.
“Patients’ families aren’t allowed in for risk of infection, so when dad goes into the hospital, you have no idea if dad is getting better or worse, if he’s about to get discharged or if he’s dead,” he said.
“The doctors who are supposed to call are literally at their wits’ end, and the nurses are spent.”
As the city staggered through its deadliest week of the pandemic, its emergency response system was pushed to the brink.
Every 15 seconds, 911 operators pick up a frantic call — panicked voices that tell of loved ones collapsing, cardiac arrests and respiratory failures.
Hammouri’s assignment is to call every family and update them on how their loved ones are doing.
“Sometimes you call the children and tell them their parents are doing terrible, and they’re so appreciative to get bad news because that’s better than no news,” he said.
“Or you’d call to tell them their young dad is dying, and they tell you, ‘Can you whisper in his ear that we love him, in case he passes away before we get through, don our gowns and masks?’” he added.
“Now we’re seeing the physical toll. We’ll see later how all those losses will affect us emotionally.”
The fire department has averaged more than 5,500 ambulance requests each day, eclipsing the total call volume on Sept. 11, 2001.
Hospitals have told dispatchers to divert ambulances elsewhere, pleading that they have no beds, oxygen or equipment.
The residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side sleep and wake every day to the din of sirens. This part of town is home to Mount Sinai, one of the city’s largest hospital systems.
Here, everything is being pushed to the limit: There are beds in hallways, lobbies and tents that were laid out in the park outside the hospital. Many units have been converted into ICUs.
The hospital’s laboratories are working day and night to find a cure and a vaccine for a virus that no one knows much about.
At the heart of these undertakings is the president of the Mount Sinai Health Network, Dr. Arthur Klein.
Managing a system that comprises eight hospitals, 9,000 doctors and 44,000 employees keeps this man’s nose to the grindstone, with a laser focus on the extensive daily data. There is simply no room for emotions.
“When you send a young person to war, the soldiers go to that war zone and they’re in the war. When they come home, theoretically, they’ve left the war behind them and they’re home,” Klein told Arab News.
“In this pandemic, your nurses and doctors aren’t only in a war when they’re in the hospital; they’re bringing that war home, and with it the potential of infecting their families. This is like nothing else anyone has ever experienced before.”
A new shipment of masks, protective gear and ventilators has just landed from China and is on its way to Mount Sinai.
“We’ve leaned upon all our supply chain channels to make sure we have adequate protective gear for patients and staff,” said Klein.
But elsewhere in the wealthiest and most medically advanced nation, nurses have been decrying the massive shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and rationing of ventilators.
In most hospitals, supplies are being guarded. The N95 masks are kept in a special area, access to which has to go through many channels. “It’s almost like being issued a gun,” Hammouri said.
Thousands of medical workers have fallen ill, pulled from the frontline just when they are needed the most. More than 50 have died nationwide.
“Mount Sinai got a Warren Buffett jet to fly to China to get a shipment of masks. It’s a hospital for the wealthy. It has deep connections, and is able to pull strings and get things done,” Hammouri said.
“But look at the city hospitals, or those located in poorer areas where African Americans or the Hassidic communities live. Most don’t have enough drugs to keep patients intubated or sedated. They’re three times overcapacity, so overrun they’ve had workers walk out of their jobs.”
Hammouri, who hails from Jordan, added: “Most of the medical workers here are immigrants, especially Arabs, who try to hide it and blend in. I can only tell from people’s accents, or if they whisper something in Arabic to each other.”
He said: “Those are the ones caring for people in this country at this crucial moment. Contrast that with all the anti-immigrant rhetoric going on.”
In the afternoon, on his way back home, something was different in his voice — some optimism that was not there in the morning.
“Before I volunteered, I felt like a fake doctor. Today I was there, helping patients,” he said. “Their nods and smiles made me remember that I came into medicine for this: To help. I did that today, and it energized me to be a small cog in the wheel.”
But back home, he can see from his window the string of ambulances and firefighters crowding outside the entrance of Woodhull hospital. It is a reminder that this Groundhog Day reality is still far from over.