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An Emergency Physician Shares Heartbreak and Joy from His Experience on the COVID-19 Front Lines

Wallace A. Carter, MD
American Board of Emergency Medicine
Specialty: Emergency Medicine

Wallace A. Carter, MDIn late April 2020, Wallace A. Carter, MD was an attending physician in the emergency department, seeing dozens of gravely ill COVID-19 patients.

A taxi pulled up to the door with two elderly passengers. A man got out and indicated that his wife was very sick and had been reluctant to go to the hospital for days. Once helped into a wheelchair, she slumped over, fighting for breath. Her husband held her hand, kissed her forehead, and waved goodbye. The team rushed her away to the resuscitation unit. Because of the coronavirus, her husband could not go with her. As she was wheeled away, he asked Dr. Carter to “Please take care of my wife, we have been married 62 years.”

“I will never forget the devastated look on that man’s face as he watched the love of his life get wheeled down the hall,” said Dr. Carter. “Even as I assured him that we would take the very best care of her, I knew there was very little we could do to save her life at that advanced stage of COVID-19. He got back into the taxi by himself and left. I was so affected by his pain and our inability to save every patient, that I went into the restroom and cried. Later that shift, learned that she had passed away. It was heartbreaking.” 

COVID-19 is Different
Over the past 40 years, as one of New York City’s first paramedics and as an emergency physician, Dr. Carter has assisted in almost every disaster in New York City. From the HIV/AIDs epidemic to both World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Sandy, he has seen it all, but COVID-19 is a different creature altogether.

“When COVID-19 started its spread through New York City, it was like a switch was flipped. We went from zero to Mach 1 in the emergency department, from just a few intubated patients to 10–15 every day, for several weeks.”

On a typical day, there were 120 people in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Weill Cornell Medicine. During the COVID-19 surge, the hospital built out 270 beds with ventilators. They discharged all patients except the ICU patients, to make room. On one day during the surge, 238 of the 249 people in the ICU had COVID-19.

Rediscovering the Joy
Everyone pitched in to help in whatever capacity they could. The Cornell Chair of Plastic Surgery served as a patient/family liaison, answering questions for family and giving status updates. “COVID-19 was a great equalizer. In those early days, we knew so little about the course of the disease, so we had to learn about it in the trenches,” said Dr. Carter. “Senior attendings and first-year residents were students together. That’s a great thing about medicine — there is always something to learn.”

It was during this time that Dr. Carter rediscovered the pure joy of being a doctor again. “It was incredibly satisfying to just roll up my sleeves and focus on patient care — no faculty or business meetings. Patient success stories helped us keep our spirits up.”

One patient in particular gave them all hope, a young woman who came in very sick with COVID-19. She was short of breath and nearly went into cardiac arrest when she arrived. The team intubated and stabilized her and sent her to the ICU. About six weeks later, that patient went home, surrounded by family, including dozens of New York firefighters and police officers who showed up in their fire trucks and police cars.

“Thanks to the House of Medicine, with its many doors and windows, this young woman has the chance to live another 50 to 60 years. My God, this is what we do, and it matters,” said Dr. Carter.

Certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM), Dr. Carter serves as Associate Attending Physician (Emergency Medicine) at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.  He is a member of the ABEM Board of Directors.

(Published: July 6, 2020)

Read more stories from the COVID-19 front lines.

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