It’s mid-November as I’m writing this, and we’re now on month eight of managing/practicing/living during COVID. I live in Kansas City, Kan., and we’re experiencing a second wave that has exhausted our bed capacity, has held out 300+ staff and physicians from work, and has now caused us to defer non-emergent surgeries that require extended inpatient stays. The state has a mask mandate that isn’t enforceable locally, Halloween has proven to be a super spreader event, and we shudder to think what the holidays and cold weather will bring.
Matt Glynn is an otolaryngologist and a managing partner of Topeka ENT, a seven-physician group with 14 practice sites spread around a 250-mile radius in central and western Kansas. They’re an extremely busy group and have worked hard to build and maintain their business. We were on the phone the other day, and he made a remark that really hit home: “Alex, you and I have done some sizable things in our careers, but don’t you think working and managing through this pandemic is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do?”
I’ve moved my family and started a new practice in three very different parts of the country, started an academic otolaryngology practice from scratch, spent a year as an interim department chair of surgery babysitting problematic transplant and cardiothoracic surgeons, and now run a large academic program, all while editing ENT today. The answer was easy: “Yes, Matt. This has been the toughest year in my career.”
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what hit us in March. Jon Lara and Tom Kang are otolaryngologists in Tucson, Ariz., who just four years ago left the practice they had been partners in for eight years to start out on their own. They had just opened a second practice site when the pandemic hit. “The worry about keeping our staff safe and paid during the lockdown kept us up all night. With the second wave, we’re better prepared financially, but the worry to provide is still always there.”
Cecilia Schmalbach is the chair of the department of otolaryngology at Temple University. She’s also a U.S. Army veteran and spent more than six months in Afghanistan in the years following 9/11. I asked her to compare what we’re going through to her time spent being a trauma surgeon in an active war. “The initial lockdown reminded me of the esprit de corps we had in the military,” she said. “The national and international otolaryngology communities banded together to keep us and our staff safe. We all had a common mission. But the difference between war and this pandemic is we had previous experience with wars—the pandemic is new to all of us.”
As COVD-19 rages on, many experts are warning of darker days ahead. I can only agree. I asked Cecilia what she would say to her troops to keep up morale. “Celebrate the small things that provide a distraction to the everyday grind,” she said. “I was deployed during Christmas, and I remember how important it was to celebrate the day, even in the middle of a war.” I like that piece of advice, and I’ll use it with my troops. Find joy in the small things, stay resilient in the fight, and we’ll get through this together. Happy holidays, my friends—you are not alone.