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A Song for the Unsung

Whelan, Gerald MD

doi: 10.1097/
    front line, COVID-19

    Like all of you, I am feeling fear, frustration, and anger, as well as half a dozen other dark and negative emotions, because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of all this darkness, though, I also feel some positive emotions—gratitude, empathy, connection, and, most of all, pride.

    I am so proud of the people of this country who, in stark contrast to the conflicted direction of our national leadership, have shown courage, compassion, common sense, and decency in so many ways, large and small, day after day. We can be so proud of all of those who are keeping us safe, fed, and warm and making sure we have the essentials we previously took for granted like water, power, heat, Internet, and mail. Letter carriers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, and so many others whose vital work went unsung for too long are finally getting the respect and gratitude that have long been overdue. Police and bus drivers too. The list could go on.

    Not to take anything away from them, but the people who have gotten the most vocal praise, and well deserved it is, are the health care workers who daily and literally put their lives on the line to prevent the spread of and to care for those stricken by COVID-19. I am proud of the custodians, the food workers, the EMTs, the medical aides, the clerks, the pharmacists, the respiratory technicians, the radiology staff, the nurses, the NPs ,and the PAs who make up the truly incredible team needed to fight this exhausting battle in our hospitals.

    And then there are the doctors. I saved them for last because they are the people of whom I am most proud. For many years, I was privileged to be in the ranks of the profession that I still believe is one of the most rewarding and challenging of all possible callings. I see doctors every night on the news struggling in their space suits to provide critical yet compassionate care to patients fighting to breathe. And many more are answering questions, explaining how this strange disease attacks and kills, and giving counsel about how critical it is that we all carry on with our jobs, even and especially if that job is as mundane (not) as simply staying home. I am proud of all doctors everywhere and in every specialty.

    But my pride is even more focused. The medicine I was privileged to practice for all those years was a very special type of medicine. I have the greatest respect for all the intensivists, pulmonologists, infectious disease specialists, surgeons, primary care physicians, and pediatricians—the whole house of medicine—who are caring for patients suffering from a disease we do not fully understand. But I have been especially proud of my colleagues in emergency medicine. I see the incredible and exhausting clinical work they do and a remarkable preponderance of them sharing their knowledge by being interviewed and writing. They are articulate and credible, and they are providing intelligent and accessible information to a public starved for accurate and believable information about this frightening scourge.

    Admittedly some of this pride is tainted with an element of comeuppance. I was one of the first physicians formally trained in emergency medicine back in the early 1970s when the specialty did not even exist. I was privileged to be involved with the national professional organizations that led the fight for recognition. Unbelievable as it may seem now, it was an uphill struggle, and we had to fight for many years to turn the tide from being considered the runts of medicine to colleagues who are now respected and acknowledged for the central part we have come to play in delivering health care on the front lines, now more than ever.

    I am humbled to think that I had even a small part in shaping the specialty that now boasts, and well it should, some of the finest women and men who show up for work every day. It will take all of us, every physician, health care worker, and service provider, for us to beat this beast, but beat it we will. I salute you all, but hope I can be forgiven for holding my longest salute for my sisters and brothers now standing front and center, the once lowly but lowly no more emergency physicians!

    Dr. Whelanis a long-retired emergency physician who spent most of his clinical time at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center as a resident, the residency director, and an associate chair. He was the president of the American Board of Emergency Medicine in 1996-1997.

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