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A Plague Year retrospective, with hope for the future


Ethan Canin, a physician author who I admire, once said that physicians make good writers because we see “great and terrible things.” No single event in my medical career has driven that point home more than the COVID-19 pandemic.


There’s no other way to put it: It’s been a terrible year.


When the pandemic began, the medical profession found itself hurled into an urgent journey into the unknown. Doctors are used to data, making decisions based upon peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) which have been presented at national meetings and scrutinized to the nth degree.


COVID came at us, out of nowhere, like runaway freight train.


At the beginning of the pandemic, people infected with COVID-19 were dying at alarming rates, and we were desperate. Medical people shared SARS CoV-2 treatment ideas based on fragmented, anecdotal data on places like Facebook and Reddit, but we were largely flying by the seat of our pants, gleaning occasional clinical tidbits from our medical colleagues in China and Europe, who had a scant few weeks' lead time on us.


It was terrifying.


Over time, we began to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. The care of COVID patients improved, and mortality rates began to fall. We all anticipated that the pandemic would run its course and go away, but politics got in the way of public health interests, and things actually got worse. This country saw huge case spikes last summer and again this past winter. Several of my friends and colleagues fell ill, some ended up in ICUs, and a few even died. The fear that I would somehow infect my family, potentially causing debility and even their death, was an unspoken undercurrent to every day. My wife, a two-time cancer survivor, and my octogenarian father and nonogenarian mother-in-law made our family risks high.


The published data showing that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were both highly successful and very safe was the best news I had received all year. The rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines has been a real triumph of scientific innovation, bordering on the miraculous. Over 2.26 billion vaccine doses have been given worldwide so far, with nearly a billion people having received at least one vaccine dose over the past 6 months. The sheer scope of that effort is simply mind-boggling. Unfortunately, politically-motivated disinformation campaigns on social media have hindered vaccine delivery and viral mitigation strategies. The disinformation actually prolonged the pandemic, making it both more prolonged and more severe than it needed to be.


Personally, I had zero doubts about the need for vaccination. I completed my second Pfizer vaccine dose on January 4, 2021. My father, mother-in-law and wife were vaccinated soon afterward. My children followed suit as soon as they were eligible. Vaccination was a light at the end of a very long tunnel, finally showing us the way out of the pandemic hellhole.


At this point in time, over 3.5 million people worldwide are known to have died of COVID. The actual number is probably more. Third world countries with poor information-gathering capacity and inadequate health care infrastructure are not able to adequately care for many of their sick patients. Based on actuarial excess death data, The Economist has estimated that the actual numbers of COVID dead worldwide conservatively could be as high as 10 million ( https://www.economist.com/briefing/2021/05/15/there-have-been-7m-13m-excess-deaths-worldwide-during-the-pandemic ). In the U.S., over 33.4 million persons have been confirmed to have COVID, and nearly 600,000 have died—the most of any country in the world. Georgia has had 1.1 million confirmed cases and 10,300 deaths. Chatham County has had 23,000 confirmed cases and 463 deaths (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/georgia-covid-cases.html ). I’ve taken care of many of those folks. Some of it has been horrible—both old and young people dying, or paralyzed, or dealing with long-term debility on the basis of COVID-related damage. Anyone who doubts the veracity of this virus’s inherently virulent mature should spend some time with a health care professional. Their doubts would be erased in short order.


But there is hope on the horizon.


In the U.S., as vaccination rates have increased, COVID-19 cases have dropped dramatically. As of this writing, 51% of the U.S. has had at least one dose of a vaccine, and 42% are fully vaccinated. Georgia lags a bit behind those figures, with 40.5% having one vaccine dose and 33% fully vaccinated. But the trend is unmistakable. Cases are dropping, masks are coming off, and things look like they might return to some semblance of normal, just in time for summer vacation.


I’ve learned a few valuable lessons during the arduous journey of this past year.


Life is precious. We all get too caught up in the day-to-day hubbub of our daily activities to truly appreciate the subtle beauty of life itself. Life is a miracle. It’s far too short and we all take it for granted. We shouldn’t.


Staying healthy is important. Good health is a commodity that most folks don’t think about at all until they no longer have it—but when they no longer have it, they can hardly think of anything else. Doing the simple things, like diet, exercise and health care maintenance activities, are worthwhile endeavors. The pandemic has motivated me to stay in shape and keep my good health intact.


Blood is thicker than water. During the pandemic, we’ve spent more time with some family members, but less time with others, and we’ve missed them. Todd Murphy, my first cousin and college roommate, died unexpectedly this spring. We’d been making plans to all get together once the pandemic was over, and then, suddenly, he was gone. That was hard. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for family ties during this tough year—and a desire to strengthen those bonds even further.


Take time to enjoy life. I took almost no time off during this past year. Each day seemed to blur into the next, the hours passing by in the sanitized sameness of pandemic purgatory. Weeks melted inexorably into months.


In retrospect, that was a mistake.


When I’m on my deathbed, I’m certainly not going to exclaim, “Man, I wish I’d worked more.” In the future, I’ll spend more time recharging—with travel, concerts, cookouts or a good book. Tomorrow may never come. I want to enjoy life while it is here.


It’s been a long, stressful year, filled with uncertainty, loneliness and heartache. But I’ve already planned a summer vacation and bought tickets to a couple of concerts. College football season is just around the corner (Go Dawgs!). Before long, it will be 2022, with the horrors of COVID 19 retreating into the rearview mirror at long last.


Frankly, that can’t happen soon enough.

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