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ER doc: ‘This is a lot harder than being in Iraq’

A New York ER doctor’s toughest battle in combating coronavirus isn’t tangling with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Cleavon Gilman sits in the chair where he often delivers bad news to patients’ next of kin. Under normal circumstances, he delivers such news once a month; while treating COVID-19, it’s become two or three times per shift.
Dr. Cleavon Gilman sits in the chair where he often delivers bad news to patients’ next of kin. Under normal circumstances, he delivers such news once a month; while treating COVID-19, it’s become two or three times per shift.
Courtesy of Dr. Cleavon Gilman

A chair waits in a hospital hallway. A plain chair, black legs and thin blue padding, under pale fluorescent light. A chair you’d hardly notice, where you’d never expect to sit for long. But this is the chair where Dr. Cleavon Gilman sits to call a patient’s next of kin. And these days, he sits there, between the ambulance bay and the trauma unit, far too often.

A mask hides his thin goatee. Goggles straddle his forehead below a distant hairline, his hair dark and thick. “Hello,” he says, stuttering with an otherwise smooth voice, “this is Dr. Gilman.”

They already know. He can hear it, a gasp of deflated hope, a sigh of resignation. Normally, he’d make this call once a month. But since COVID-19 took over his hospital on Manhattan’s East Side, he’s had to tell families their loved one has died two or three times a shift. That’s between the quick, high-pitched alarm that bursts from his phone when a critical patient needs him. The tone comes over and over, “all day long.” The dread is constant.

“It just creeps up on you,” he says. “I’m a strong person, but it’s very insidious how the emotional toll creeps up on you.”

Cleavon served as a Navy medic in Iraq, where he stabilized battlefield casualties. “That has prepared me mentally. That has prepared me emotionally. And I kind of draw on those experiences,” he says. “But this is a lot harder than being in Iraq.”

New York City isn’t supposed to be a war zone. But he hears ambulance sirens every 20 minutes. His family shelters inside. He’s afraid he’ll bring the virus home, viewing every cough or sniffle with suspicion. And unlike a gunshot or a shrapnel wound, COVID-19 is an “invisible enemy,” a sort of medical improvised explosive device.

You never know when it will get you.

When he gets home, after he places his shoes in a box, and his scrubs in a trash bag, and scours contaminants from his skin in the shower, Cleavon makes time to write in his journal. He details his shifts with excruciating precision, hoping to make readers take the virus seriously. He stays active on Facebook and Twitter for the same reason. He wants people to hear accurate information from someone on the front lines. He doesn’t trust politicians, including the president.

“I’m not a political person,” Cleavon says. “At all. But I get up every morning upset.”

He’s most worried about places that seem far away, where the virus hasn’t manifested in great numbers yet. Places like Wyoming or Idaho, where many defy social distancing guidelines, even public officials. Arizona is on his mind, since he’s moving to Yuma in June — along with two kids and his fiancee. They were supposed to marry in May.

But for now, he sits in that lonely chair, delivering bad news again. Perhaps he’ll write about it later, when he has time to think through his feelings.

He sighs as the alarm on his phone goes off again.