What Remains from a Shutdown
Guest post from Chevanne Scordinsky (6 minute read)
Welcome to The Turnstone. Here, I share my perspective on science, society and the environment. I send my articles out every Sunday - if you’d like them emailed to you directly, you can sign up to my mailing list.
This week, I bring you a guest post from Chevanne Scordinsky. Chevanne is a writer and healthcare professional in the New York metro area. Here she writes about her experience early in the Covid-19 pandemic.
The edict came down on a Friday afternoon: mandatory masking for all staff, effective immediately. It had already been tense. No one was sure how to protect themselves. Masks, shields, and gloves had begun to disappear from supply shelves and the stock market was taking a dive.
One of my staff members wasn’t feeling well that day. I had already forecast the need for adjusting staffing. He’ll be out on Monday. Maybe. We handed out masks and with some protest, he took his.
“How are you?”
“Short of breath. Aching. I can barely walk across the room.”
He was under the weather for sure. I thought about all those people in his New York high rise shoulder to shoulder, their infected respiratory droplets filling the air.
He was out that week. Work went on, but I wondered, waited, and checked in.
The environment in the hospital rapidly shifted. A population of staff went remote while essential personnel stayed on site in rotations. Once bustling corridors were empty.
We imagined ourselves to be rational people but fear gripped every corner of the laboratory. No one went anywhere without paper towels to hold doorknobs. We moved passed each other like opposing magnets, never lingering together too long.
The operating rooms had cancelled all elective surgeries. Only emergencies, selected cancer cases, and births were permitted. For the pathology department, that meant drips and drabs of surgical specimens to process. Some days it felt like a pipe was dripping slowly and loudly, the only sound in a noiseless void. We did our best to stay busy. It felt like we were hunkered down, waiting for disaster.
Disaster eventually came.
People started dying daily. The morgue had filled to capacity and so had two refrigerated trucks. There was a constant stream of bodies in and out, pick ups and intakes. I would pass by an office and see a printed sheet of names. A census of the dead was taken perhaps thrice daily during the worst of it.
I was fortunate not to know the full extent, but know that it was crushing. Among the names had been a few people the staff knew. None of the dead would have funerals. They’d be carted away from the ward to the morgue to the funeral home. No last words or laying on of hands. It was a punishing pace that wore down even the strongest.
While the political discourse raged with theories of whether or not the virus was even real, we did not have the luxury of esoteric debate. We were witnesses.
The drive into what felt like the lion’s den was eerie and post apocalyptic. I was both curious and frightened of the empty expanses of highway. Yet everyday I’d walk into a hospital where covid patients were being treated in the floor directly below me. While shoppers were washing their milk bottles, on occasion, I’d see a ventilated patient being transported. It had a numbing effect. After a while, I did the family food-shopping.
“It’s in the air. All around us,” he chuckled. I shook my head at the desk clerk. A low lying fear rose in my chest. I did not shake it for months.
I took advantage of the lull in case volume and set about completing a mission I wanted from the time I started three years before: writing a pathology manual. The surgical pathology director and I had a daily flurry of activity over email, texts, and phone calls. Even amidst all the uncertainty and silence, I was running… fast. We focused on developing standards of practice that would govern the majority of cases.
I was almost sad when shutdown came to an end in May 2020. We had accomplished so much and it felt like so much more needed to be done before the floodgates opened. It was a mad dash to complete the manual and once done, we could say we made the best of a pandemic. We had made the department better by laying down important policy groundwork. It was one of the proudest moments of my career.
“Aris passed away.”
“Fuck off. Don’t say that.”
My staff member had been hospitalized over the weekend and gone downhill quickly. I had spoken to Aris last on the previous Friday the week he was out and on next Tuesday morning he was gone.
Delivering bad news is a strange thing. There’s a moment before people know, when they are placid and unaffected, before you shatter them. The response I remember the most, was of Aris’s closest colleague. He was seated and working when I called to him. He jumped back in his chair and was both physically and emotionally hit with the news.
I do not feel entitled to grieve Aris in a significant way. I did not know him for long or in the intimate ways others did. We disagreed. I yelled. He insisted on his point of view. At a certain point, we’d come to respect each other. I had seen the things he was trying to tell me and appreciated that I needed to adapt. Aris never cared for email or texts. He liked calls and face to face meetings. The message could not be misconstrued. There was a dialogue and a resolution when people spoke. I had to relinquish my need for control.
“Miss Chevanne. How are you?” He came in at 11am into the center of a beehive and would call each morning to get a lay of the land. At the end of his shift, Aris would call the evening staff member to let him know what was pending. It was proper hand off, something I’m trying to engender in staff today.
I don’t know how to write about who he was. At heart, he was an instructor, affectionately know as The Professor. He was energetic and dedicated. Most other descriptions I have feel meaningless. I can only hold on to the things he said, did, and how he affected me.
The surgical pathology director and I were standing in front of newly painted storage cabinets, an upgrade from the dingy brown metal. We weren’t there yet, but were doing so slowly. We were closers.
Cleaning up the laboratory, creating a manual, hiring new staff, starting weekly education… we’d be making an impact we likely could not have accomplished without a shutdown. Aris would have been so proud of what we’d accomplished.
“When this place is all done, we’ll dedicate it to him.”
We’re still working, still trying to live up to that promise.