From Coronavirus’s Front Lines: An Authentic American Hero

In wartime, Americans have celebrated our military warriors and veterans who have risked their lives to preserve our freedom. As the ravages of Coronavirus spread, today’s heroes are the front-line health care workers – the doctors, nurses, orderlies, technicians – who risk their lives every day to save ours.

Yesterday I spoke with Dr. Saquib Rahim, one of my former students at Harvard Business School. He had his first day off after 36 consecutive days of 12-14 hours working on the COVID-19 ward at New York Presbyterian Hospital in the global epicenter of the virus. When I asked him about the experience, he said, “I am exhausted,”

The patients are coming so fast there is no time to process. I am stunned by what I see with Coronavirus patients; it’s so different than anything I have seen in 15 years of patient care. We are perpetually surprised. We still have no sense of which patients will get better and which won’t make it. Some patients seem to be getting better and then decline rapidly and have to be intubated. We don’t have any real therapies; we tried hydroxychloroquine but it had minimal impact, so we stopped using it. We are worried about a second wave, because this disease is so transmissible; we’ve never seen anything like it before. We are doing everything in our power to restore their health.

Dr. Rahim earned his medical degree from Northwestern University, specializing in internal medicine before coming to HBS to study for his MBA. I got to know him as a student in my course, Authentic Leader Development, where he would come to my office talk about his career. Thirteen years later he has been Chief Medical Officer and VP, Digital Strategy for Aetna Health and later in a leadership role at Merck, but he has continued as a practicing physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Queens, NY. In May he will join Johnson & Johnson, while continuing his active medical practice.

In spite of his long, exhausting days, he has found time to post regular messages on LinkedIn, which are some of the most moving I have ever read. Reading his posts is one way to get in touch with the tragedy happening around us every day. Here are a few excerpts (quoted with his permission):

#1: Today I have 12 confirmed Covid-19 patients on my service alone, with the number climbing every day. Please keep those patients in your prayers… Yesterday afternoon I had to tell an elderly Hispanic woman she tested positive for coronavirus… She looked at me really sad: “Does this mean I’m going to die now?”… My heart broke into so many pieces to see her that scared. Take care of each other y’all… Social distancing does not mean social isolation… Be extra kind.

#2: The number of Covid patients is climbing daily by ~33%. No amount of medical training can prepare one for a pandemic… For the first time I truly understand what it feels like to stare a pandemic in the face and feel small… And please be extra kind. To the gentleman who died today, I’m sorry we couldn’t do more for you – RIP.

#3: If anyone is still wondering whether the current pandemic is serious, let me say it plainly: It absolutely is. I’ve never seen anything like this in my clinical career. I asked my Fellow how he was holding up. He responded: “Everyone is pitching in and we still can’t keep up. I’m already burnt out and it’s only going to get worse. I just keep moving though. Because I have to…” We see the fear that many of you have, and frankly we feel it too… But together we persevere. Because we have to…

#4: My patient pulled off his oxygen mask to say, “Doc, tell me – how are YOU doing?”. His concern caught me off-guard and made me tear up… Today alone I have 24 Covid+ patients, and there are no magic bullets – including hydroxychloroquine… Despite how sick this man was, he put himself aside to take care of me; there was something ironic yet beautiful about that moment. Then he said, “Oh, and don’t forget to call your parents. They’re probably worried sick…” Call your parents/children/loved ones/friends/coworkers. They’re probably worried sick about you.

#5: I’ve had at least one patient die every day over the past week. It’s a helpless feeling not to be able to do more. We didn’t reach 1000 Covid deaths in the US until 3/26. It took only 6 more days (i.e. 4/1) to quadruple… I had an elderly patient we finally had to intubate. I called his daughter, a doctor herself, to explain the situation… Choking back tears, she pleaded, “Can you please go in the room and whisper in his ear that I love him? Those might be the last words he’ll ever hear.” It was tragic that a stranger like myself had to deliver such momentous words between loved ones. All of us hold back from telling people what we really think and feel – often to our own detriment… It’s never too late to start living and leading from a place of compassion and authenticity. This pandemic will end one day. But the lessons we learn from it should endure…

#6: After 33 days straight of working on the Covid service (my choice)… the death toll in NY alone is staggering. I’ve made so many calls to family that I wish I’d never had to make. Each of those calls changes you, even if you don’t know how just yet… The biggest shame would be to survive this pandemic and not have grown – as individuals, communities, and society at large… But recognize this pandemic is far from over. And the changes we will need to make are only just beginning.

Dr. Rahim could be at home working at his corporate job, but instead he has chosen to risk his life to save the lives of others. As you can see from his poignant posts, his work is heartbreaking. His posts are filled with emotion, compassion and wisdom enabling us to feel we are there with him. He is just one of tens of thousands of health care workers who are risking their lives as well. We need to honor all our front-line health care workers as true servant leaders in our society.

For decades we have tried to routinize the work of American physicians and nurses and replace them with administrators and supervisors, while their compensation didn’t keep up with the rest of society. Now in this crisis, we are recognizing that the true American heroes are the health care workers on the front lines of combatting Coronavirus – risking their lives to save ours. In this hour we should honor and reward them, and remember Dr. Rahim’s words, “It’s never too late to start living and leading from a place of compassion and authenticity.”

(You can find Dr. Rahim’s complete posts on his LinkedIn site.)