Bermudian doctor: My year on the Covid-19 frontline
A year ago Meliseanna Gibbons bravely suited up in PPE to confirm the first Covid-19 death in the state of New York.
What followed was a baptism by fire. From March 14, for two months straight while the disease was at its peak, she was on the frontline at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. As was the case around the world, doctors there initially had no idea what they were up against or how to fight it.
Ultimately the entire hospital was turned into an ICU. Staff struggled to cope with the more than 2,000 people infected with Covid-19 who turned up over that period. Roughly 300 patients died; to keep pace, refrigerated trailers were brought in as makeshift morgues.
But a year on, so much has changed.
“Overall it’s not gotten anywhere near what it was [last] March so we are all so thankful for that,” said Dr Gibbons, who will complete her residency with Wyckoff at the end of June and is looking for a job in the US.
“What happens is we get little bumps; little surges here and there where you have the ED flooded with a bunch of people that have Covid and have to be admitted. I think the worst that it’s gotten we had to open up a new floor [just for Covid patients] again. But it didn’t last for long. It was maybe for five days or so.
“The other thing is a lot of people are being discharged. Of course there are some who have to go on the respirator and don’t do well, but it’s a minority.”
Wyckoff, a 350-bed teaching hospital, sits in Bushwick, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor, last year publicly commended the facility for its efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.
“It got to that point where we would applaud when a patient was discharged home because it was such a beautiful, rare thing to see,” said Dr Gibbons in an interview with The Royal Gazette last September. “Then it got to the point where most people were being discharged home. Some were going home on oxygen; some were going home just fine and not coming back.
“Slowly but surely we saw Wyckoff as we had always known it — except for the fact that everyone wears masks, we wear shields, we wear goggles.”
Although she understood the nature of viruses, when the reported daily cases hit a high in January, Dr Gibbons initially panicked.
She is grateful that, with the benefit of experience, New Yorkers were able to get the numbers back down. From 4,878 in the days before Thanksgiving they rose to just under 20,000 after Christmas; the seven-day average is now 6,896.
“The majority of people are working from home and not out and about, which is good,” Dr Gibbons said. “People are also wearing masks. When I go on the sidewalk about 70 per cent of people are compliant. And the other thing is we have a game plan. We’re not being taken by surprise like we were last time. We have measures in place to control the symptoms; we have the vaccine [and] a lot of people are getting the vaccine as well.”
It took “a lot of coaxing” before the staff at Wyckoff felt comfortable enough to agree to having it.
“I was very, very hesitant to get this vaccine,” said Dr Gibbons. “Our chairwoman, she was the one who was pushing out all this research and all these podcasts and interviews that were going out by doctors and by the scientists saying how beneficial it is, basically not to be afraid of it. But it took a lot of coaxing. It took our programme director and the chairwoman to get the vaccine first.
“The residents were the next people that started taking the vaccine with the rest of the hospital just kind of looking on. It was very nerve-racking I’ll be honest. One by one we got it and then the nurses and then it was the workers who weren’t in the medical field.”
Shots were then offered to people over the age of 65, people with compromised immunities, people working in medical care and people on the frontline.
“Obviously not everyone got it done and I am sure there are people who won’t but what happened is that they then opened it up to the community and it was really nice to see everyone coming in,” said Dr Gibbons, who helped out in the clinic.
“It was very moving just to see. They were fearful, they had questions but there was also just that amount of hope - maybe this is the answer; I’m willing to take that chance.”
Although she trusted the science, the concern for her and many of her colleagues was that the vaccine was “just so new”. Her experience with Pfizer was a typical one: a sore arm with the first shot and “chills and body aches for a day” with the second.
“I got mine in December when I think the majority of the hospitals in America didn’t even have access to it. This was early, early on. Not that many numbers of people had had it in their system for longer than three months. That was my only take: if it had been out for a year then maybe [we would be able to better see] the side effects that could come with it and all of that. But really and truly it’s just a vaccine like any other vaccine.”
Despite the added protection Dr Gibbons still suits up in PPE whenever she meets with patients.
“That’s mandatory in the hospital. I still put on my mask and my goggles and my gowns. I think we are all still waiting for more data to come out.
“I am hopeful that [as more people get vaccinated] the numbers will continue to be steady and go down but to think that I am completely protected from it, no. I still don’t take that for granted.”
Her belief is that mask-wearing will continue in New York for a while before “slowly but surely [Covid-19 becomes] like any other sickness that we deal with”. “The flu is still out there and people still pass away from the flu. But we learn to go back to some sense of normalcy where it’s not in your face; it’s not completely blocking you from going on about your life.
“So I think it’s slowly but surely going to go to the background. It’s not going to disappear.”
The experience of working on the frontline during the peak of a pandemic is “obviously something that I’ll never forget”, she said.
“I think what I took out of it was you take for granted people’s sense of courage. It’s so easy to read about war stories and look at documentaries – oh my gosh I can’t believe this person did that, that’s so bigger than life - but average people have a lot of courage and that’s something that I’ll never forget.
“So many people stepped up to the plate knowing that they could lose their lives. They were still willing to come to work, were still willing to help out; were still willing to make that special touch with each person. That’s something that I’ll never forget. It’s not just a story, it’s not just a documentary; it’s not just a history lesson. It’s real life. And I think that’s what I’ll take out of that whole experience.”
With family here, she is so thankful that Bermuda has weathered the pandemic so well.
“Every time I go online and I see the numbers it’s just like, wow… I have so much gratefulness for that.”