New York Presbyterian,
New York (temporary April & May 2020)
San Francisco General Hospital
& Stanford University,
San Francisco, CA
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
When I was a boy, I dreamed of walking up the Canyon of Heroes, on Broadway in New York City, to crowds roaring in the streets. Cheers and streams of a ticker-tape would pour down from the skyscrapers above. I would have just won the World Series as a Yankee shortstop. Freddy Schuman would spoon-clang his frying pan from the audience, and I would be showered in bubbling champagne.
The parade would have been in my honor. It would be for a hero returned.
I never became a famous baseball player.
I last triumphantly walked past the old, brass home plate of the New York Yankees (nee Highlanders) in a courtyard at New York Presbyterian Hospital when I graduated from medical school in June of 2013. Giving up that dream, I packed my bags and headed to California to train in Zone 1 of the Emergency Department at San Francisco General Hospital.
But like little Bilbo Baggins or mighty Odysseus, I could not have known how my journey would unfold. Along the way, I would encounter the herculean trials of a would-be demigod. Instead of the ability to hit a sliding curveball or make a lunging throw to first base, I learned how to shoot lightning through a human heart. The riddles of human illness would be presented daily, and my character would be assessed with tests of compassion. Like a magic bellow, I would breathe life with my hands before my training was through.
There would be failures and setbacks as well. At what would seem like the moment of my apotheosis, I was broken back down. Just months after completing my residency, a car hurtled into me, leaving me broken on the ground. I gained new empathy for my patients, but lost my ability to walk. I would have to crawl out of the abyss. Crawl until the crawl became a walk. Walk until it was down the aisle this past fall, marrying my partner who hailed from this magic land. My roots were finally beginning to take in this new place.
The perfection of my new life didn’t last long. The siren’s wail would eventually drift in from afar. My home was suddenly under attack from an unseen enemy. In a mass exodus, my family retreated from their city streets, lest the air be sucked out of their lungs and they be left to die, alone in a hospital bed and buried in a mass grave.
“You cannot go back! Look at what has happened to other ED doctors,” friends and family had pleaded. What they didn’t realize was that it was not the danger of going that I feared. Rather, it was the dread of looking at myself in the mirror if I did not, which frightened me most. When I put on my white coat years earlier, I had made a solemn vow. To break it now, when my home needed me the most, would be to lose who I had become.
So here I stand, high up the Canyon not far from that brass home plate. I have brought with me the skills I gained while on my journey. It is 7:00 PM, and the cheers of my old neighborhood come pouring down. Pans are beaten with spoons. Maybe my dream has come true?
But fate is rarely what it seems. There is no ticker-tape, and there is no Champagne. There are no crowds in the street. I am alone. The cafes and libraries where my wife and I had studied so many years ago are shuttered. The students are gone from the classrooms where I learned human anatomy. The streets seem prepared for battle.
I begin to wonder if these cheers are for returning heroes or for warriors heading to certain death? With each step I take toward the threshold of the COVID-19 unit, I clutch the armor I have collected along the way: a gown and gloves, a mask and shield. Nostos or Kleos? Is this how Achilles felt as he approached Troy?
Christian Rose is an Emergency Physician who lives in San Francisco with his wife Natalia, her brother Michael, and no cat. Some unnamed people in the house are upset by the lack of a cat while one hopes for a dog. Christian is enamored by the inspiring people he gets to work with every day — who bring love and joy to such dire times. In his spare time, he runs to ‘90s pop and plays with friends’ dogs.