Doctor who survived Ebola reveals just how afraid he is of coronavirus

24 March 2020, 12:05

Craig Spencer said his day as an emergency doctor is 'all COVID' since the outbreak
Craig Spencer said his day as an emergency doctor is 'all COVID' since the outbreak. Picture: Getty
Rachael Kennedy

By Rachael Kennedy

"I survived Ebola. I fear COVID-19," wrote Craig Spencer, a top emergency doctor working on the coronavirus frontline in a hospital in New York City.

"You might hear people saying it isn't real. It is," he continued. "You might hear people saying it isn't bad. It is.

"You might hear people saying it can't take you down. It can."

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Dr Spencer, who overcame Ebola when he was diagnosed in 2014 after returning from treating patients in Guinea, made his comments on Tuesday as he signed off his day-in-the-life account of being the global director of health in emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

His account is written as a reminder to "stay home" to curb the disease's spread.

Speaking about the social distancing measures in the US, he said he had reflected "on the fact that it's really hard to understand how bad this is - and how bad it's going to be - if all you see are empty streets."

But, he warned: "Hospitals are nearing capacity. We are running out of ventilators. Ambulance sirens don't stop."

Calm outside 'immediately transformed'

Waking up at 6.30am, Dr Spencer said his "priority" is to make enough coffee for the whole day "because the place by the hospital is closed."

"The Starbucks, too," he added. "It's all closed."

READ MORE: Can you still go outside during the coronavirus UK lockdown?

The walk to work "feels like Sunday" due to the quietness outside, but once he steps foot in the hospital doors for his 8am shift, he said he is "struck by how the calm of the early morning city streets is immediately transformed."

"The bright fluorescent lights of the ER reflect off everyone's protective goggles. There is a cacophony of coughing," he said.

"You stop. Mask up. Walk in."

'It's best to put her on life support now'

On shift, "nearly every patient is the same, young and old: Cough, shortness of breath, fever," he wrote.

Recalling one patient the team on duty previously were "really worried about", Dr Spencer said it was "clear" what was going on, and "what needs to happen."

"Very short of breath, on the maximum amount of oxygen we can give, but still breathing fast," he said.

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"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. You're getting set up for that, but..."

'Another sick patient needs life support'

"You're notified of another really sick patient coming in. You rush over. They're also extremely sick, vomiting.

"They need to be put on life support as well. You bring them back. Two patients, in two room right next to each other, both getting a breathing tube.

"It's not even 10am yet."

READ MORE: Healthcare workers reveal face sores from wearing protective masks for hours on end

Dr Spencer went on to detail a list of patients being alerted to him "nearly every hour" throughout the day - all with symptoms of the virus.

He added: "Sometime in the afternoon you recognise you haven't drank any water.

"You're afraid to take off the mask. It's the only thing that protects you. Surely you can last a little longer - in West Africa during Ebola, you spent hours in a hot suit without water."

'It's all COVID'

"Nearly everyone you see today is the same. We assume everyone is COVID-19.

"We wear gowns, goggles, and masks at every encounter. All day. It's the only way to be safe.

"Where did all the heart attacks and appendicitis patients go? It's all COVID."

When his shift ends, Dr Spencer said he hands over his patients to the incoming team and expresses concerns about colleagues who don't have sufficient access to protective equipment, or enough ventilators to treat patients.

But then comes the cleaning ritual before leaving for home.

"You wipe everything down," he said. "Your phone. Your badge. Your wallet. Your coffee mug.

"All of it. Drown it in bleach. Everything in a bag. Take no chances. Sure you got it all??? Wipe it down again. Can't be too careful."

READ MORE: How long does COVID-19 live on surfaces? Is post from overseas safe?

At home, he said he gets to see his toddler for the first time in days but isn't able to go near her to begin with, without taking a shower.

But then, he said, it's "time for family".

'Stay inside'

After sharing his account, Dr Spencer said he believed the US was "too late" to stop the virus, but was still able to "slow its spread."

He added: "The virus can't infect those it never meets. Stay inside. Social distancing is the only thing that will save us now.

"I don't care much about the economic impact as I do about our ability to save lives."

In the US, more than 46,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19, while hundreds have died.

More than 380,000 people have the illness worldwide, leading to more than 16,000 people losing their lives.