An emergency room doctor in New York City got thrust into an international spotlight this week when former President Barack Obama responded to what he had posted on Twitter. The doctor’s theme: a day in the ER.

Identified on social media as Dr. Craig Spencer, the NYC physician, in a burst of tweets documented a typical day under the COVID-19 pandemic. It begins with a pot of coffee and a “cacophony of coughing” when he steps in the hospital.

“You take (the) signout sheet from the previous team, but nearly every patient is the same, young & old: Cough, shortness of breath, fever. They are really worried about one patient. Very short of breath, on the maximum amount of oxygen we can give, but still breathing fast.

“You immediately assess this patient. It’s clear what this is, and what needs to happen. You have a long and honest discussion with the patient and family over the phone. It’s best to put her on life support now, before things get much worse.”

For the rest of the day, the doctor’s pager pings him. If he has time for lunch, he heads to the hospital cafeteria and wolfs down food, feeling vulnerable without a face mask even for a few minutes. After his shift, he cleans with bleach every item he brought to the hospital, including his wallet, badge and coffee cup. He goes home to his wife and toddler, leaves his belongings outside the door and heads straight to the shower.

“You might hear people saying it isn’t real. It is. You might hear people saying it isn’t bad. It is. You might hear people saying it can’t take you down. It can. I survived Ebola. I fear #COVID-19. Do your part. Stay home. Stay safe. And every day I’ll come to work for you,” the doctor tweeted.

Health care workers around the world are putting their own health at risk to protect ours.

Doctors in Chicago already are reporting an uptick in hospital care for patients showing signs of the virus. Gov. J.B. Pritzker in daily press briefings has released a running list of needed supplies, including masks and ventilators.

Rush University Medical Center’s CEO, Dr. Omar Lateef, who joined Pritzker on Tuesday, warned that hospital workforces in some cities are getting cut in half abruptly due to health ailments affecting employees. He said three issues could limit hospitals’ ability to serve sick patients here: a shortage of beds, a shortage of personal protective equipment and a shortage of staff. All three are realistic possibilities, even in Illinois, where government leaders have been preparing for an outbreak.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Illinois is reporting 1,865 known cases of coronavirus and 19 deaths. Yes, the mortality rate so far is relatively low. But that doesn’t make caring for healing victims any easier. Medical workers are exhausted.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital implemented a no-visitor policy to protect patients and staff. The hospital also set up temporary tent structures to screen patients prior to entering the emergency department. The best way to respect and thank health care workers? Stay home, they say.

“Avoid going out for anything other than essential needs,” the hospital said in statement.

As one registered nurse told us: “We became nurses knowing things like this can happen. ... What we are finding most frustrating is not having the equipment to do it properly and safely for ourselves. We also have families and want to keep them safe.” The most frustrating aspect of the pandemic, she said, is “seeing people out running around not taking it serious, then showing up in the ER wanting the highest care.”

This week, New York City hospitals are nearing capacity, according to press reports. More than 15,500 people have become infected and 192 have died. Dr. Spencer, whose tweets caught Obama’s attention, still will be expected in the ER this week for his regular shift, taking care of sick patients, taking care of himself and hoping he keeps his family safe. Across the country, doctors, nurses and hospital staff members are leaving their homes and pulling on scrubs.

The ill patients they are treating likely were infected a week ago or more, experts say. “The numbers will undoubtedly skyrocket overnight, as they have every night the past few days,” Spencer tweeted this week. “More will come to the ER. More will be stat notifications. More will be put on a ventilator.”

The above editorial was published March 26 by the Chicago Tribune. It has been edited for length. Its views are its own.

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