Dr. Qanta Ahmed: Bravely confronting coronavirus – New Yorkers, and all Americans, rise to this latest challenge

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“My daughter is an emergency room nurse at St Joseph’s Hospital,” my patient began telling me during our consultation last week.  “This is her 9/11, I told her.”

We fell into silence remembering our 9/11 only too vividly.

Rarely dwelling on himself, my patient – who works as a federal marshal at the Brooklyn VA – described the massive influx of coronavirus-suspected patients his daughter was seeing pour into the small Long Island facility.

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He spoke about her fear and exhaustion for some time.

We were meeting for his routine checkup. He is one of the over 6,000 first responders in Nassau County that receive care via the World Trade Center monitoring program at my hospital.

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We had both come through a difficult week – he was seeing more and more veterans come for medical attention for possible coronavirus. And I was just coming to terms with the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak in Long Island, feeling the strain on my colleagues, my patients and myself.

My patient exemplified what I had already seen in many consultations last week. Stoic doggedness, a refusal to be cowed by the pandemic. Some of my patients visited me while sequestered at home via telemedicine portals, which NYU Langone had activated for 5,500 doctors in less than 48 hours.

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While each patient felt inordinately better just for connecting with me, I was encouraged more.

They are ordinary Americans who live without fanfare or glamour. They are blue-collar workers, retirees, disabled. Many await the resumption of work and hope the Trump administration will come through with financial support. Without fail, I was struck by how each one encouraged me.

“Be safe, Dr. Ahmed!” they beseeched. “Look after yourself, Dr. Ahmed!” “Thank you for all you are doing, Dr. Ahmed.”

Their smiles, humor and encouragement lifted my spirits. If you met them, you would know what I already am sure is true:

America, you have GOT this.

New Yorkers have weathered dark times. Our memories of 9/11 remain vivid, even as many young nurses and doctors fighting COVID-19 have little or no memory of that day. And our older colleagues remind us of the legendary courage of New Yorkers who faced contagion decades ago.

In these times of uncertainty, we must remind ourselves of our unique tenacity as New Yorkers, and indeed as Americans. 

Within weeks after a frightening outbreak of smallpox in March 1947, 6.35 million people were vaccinated in New York City – over 5 million within a two-week period following the appeal for universal vaccination by Mayor William O’Dwyer.

It remains the single largest vaccination campaign in America's history.

Vaccination centers were set up in hospitals, doctors’ offices and police precincts. They operated day and night seven days a week. Private and public physicians were all deployed to the effort. Newspapers and radio broadcast the message. The American Red Cross, the American Women’s Voluntary Services, and former air raid wardens all worked to get the job done.

Throughout this highly contagious outbreak, brave New Yorkers quietly lined the streets in public with their children to receive the new vaccine for this devastating and often lethal illness. Thanks to their courage, it was the last outbreak of smallpox America would see.

Thirty years earlier, New Yorkers faced one of the most intense polio epidemics in the world.

During two weeks in April 1916, 150 children were infected throughout the five boroughs. By December there were 8,900 cases with 2,448 deaths in New York. The outbreak expanded to New England and the Mid-Atlantic States, afflicting 23,000 people and causing 5,000 more deaths. This was decades before either the polio vaccine or the first iron lung was developed.

We came through it all.

And we will come through again.

In this great nation, home to the brave, New York is often her ground zero. So in these times of uncertainty, we must remind ourselves of our unique tenacity as New Yorkers, and indeed as Americans.

We survived smallpox and saw to its eradication. We survived polio and rendered it a fragment of history. In the last century, we survived two world wars, a Great Depression, a Cold War, and heartbreaking assassinations. In just two decades we have borne 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and a devastating recession.

Today, though we shelter in place, sometimes fearful and alone, we stand shoulder to shoulder, unified. We are not red or blue, liberal or conservative. Just humble stewards of a magnificent nation made meek by the enormity of the task before us.

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Still, we remain worthy and willing. Americans will brook COVID-19 no safe harbor. We will make the sacrifices demanded of us with quiet courage. All while remembering the poignant example and legendary bravery of those who came before us.

America, you have GOT this.

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