The Tide Went Way Out

When a disaster comes to the High Plains, the sky holds the warning. It has always been this way. The sky dominates the land on the plains. Of course it where the warning first appears.

When wildfire rushes across the plains smoke clouding the sky announces its imminent arrival. When the “black blizzards” rolled across the plains in the Dust Bowl their towering clouds of dust blocked out the sun on the horizon. The sky lets you know ahead of time.

Except this time it doesn’t. The sky is serene and blue as far as the eye can see.

The pace in clinic and the Emergency Department is slow. I have only been on staff here for about a month, but I know this is slow even for here. Physicals have been cancelled, colonoscopies postponed, the usual minor urgent care visit in the ED have effectively ceased.

I think of stories from the islands of the Pacific during Tsunamis. First, the tide goes way out suddenly, then the wave builds in the distance and it just keeps coming. As I stand on the edge of town, looking West at the setting sun, I feel like I am watching the tide rapidly recede.

I have spent the last 48 hours running around the hospital checking for what supplies we have, asking pharmacy techs to order more vecuronium (on backorder), steroids, duo-nebs, and morphine, oh God, please make sure we have enough morphine. I verbally underline the need to stay stocked with morphine to the pharmacy tech.

I repeat Dr. Edward Trudeau’s mantra in my mind, “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” In a preparation meeting, I remind my colleagues Rural America looks demographically a lot like Italy. Mostly older, and in our case, very chronically ill.

We unfortunately have even fewer doctors and hospital beds per capita than Italy. This will swamp us, I emphasize to my colleagues. And our typically release valve, “transfer to higher level of care,” is going to stop working pretty soon, because it will hit transfer centers before it hits us.

I am preparing to practice mass casualty, battlefield medicine. I fully anticipate we will run out of IV fluid, IV tubing, etc at some point. I insisted we order 3% saline so we can mix it with D5 or Sterile water to make more normal saline than we otherwise would be able to order.

I made our pharmacy tech other oral rehydration solutions, feeding bags, and NG tubes. Once we realize we are getting low on IV supplies, hydration will have to be done orally, with NG tubes if necessary for the weakest.

Just like everyone else, we have started rationing PPE. Hopefully the supply lines catch up by the time it really reaches us. We will probably have a 1-2 week lag compared to urban centers.

When I get home, I completely strip, all my clothes go into the wash – on sanitize. I shower more thoroughly than I ever have. Only then do I get to kiss and hold my wife and daughter.

Like everyone else is saying, please stay home for us and our families.

20% percent of Italian healthcare workers have contracted the virus, when one out of every five healthcare workers is out and cannot work, more people than need to will die.

This is what I dread is coming….I hope I am wrong….but I don’t think so.

The Wave is Building

We all take comfort in our founding myths and narratives. The physical and social isolation of the High Plains from the coasts and cities allows people to act as though the problems of those places exist in another world. This time has been no different. People have reacted slowly and still aren’t sure whether or not to take it seriously.

I have been trying to create a sense of urgency without panic. A narrow balance beam to walk. I don’t know if I am succeeding.

I can feel the shocks of the formative earthquake rippling through my body, even if the wave is still not visible. It is corporeal. The wave is building, rising. I survey the horizon, there is no high ground. No where to run to. We are it out here.

The state has already told us not to expect extra equipment any time soon. The strategic stockpile is already spoken for.

Already, we are accepting low acuity patient’s from the nearest large urban hospitals in an attempt to free up bed space for them. Our normal Critical Access bed cap of 25 has been lifted to 35 beds.

The wave is building.

We really normally only function with 5 acute inpatient beds which normally hold the lowest acuity patients who would ever be in the hospital. We have one ventilator, and it is transfer vent. No bipaps, our nursing home is physically attached to our hospital – a disaster in the waiting.

We won’t be keeping anyone alive on ventilators out here. To try and do so would utilize valuable resources in the hands of physicians and staff who are not well suited to maximize that person’s survival.

The role I anticipate we will play is three-fold. Surge capacity for low acuity cases who simply need oxygen, hydration, and nursing care. We will likely provide convalescent care for people who are weakened after serious illness and sent out here to take the load off of urban referral centers. And, finally, hospice and palliative care.

We will comfort the dying. Comfort always. At some point this will be the greatest gift we can offer.

Death will Walk with Us

In a moment between meetings, I sit dumbfounded in my chair in front my computer. The photo is an Italian military convoy hauling trucks full of bodies out of Bergamo. This is different.

The wave is building.

As a physician, we have all interacted with death before. This will be different. Italy is showing us this now. I learn the next day, we don’t even have a funeral home in town. Our options are 20 miles in either directions.

I ask our emergency preparedness director what the plan for moving bodies out of the hospital is. She tells me the mass casualty plan includes a plan for bodies to stored in the community center until refrigerated trucks or another location can be identified.

Well, that’s at least something, I think and take walk to the edge of town to watch the sun go down.

It seems fitting that the edge of town is also the edge of the cemetery. I estimate the space left in the cemetery, probably insufficient. I guess it doesn’t matter much anyway. People’s bodies who die in a pandemic are supposed to be cremated anyway.

This is rural medicine in the age of the pandemic. A family medicine doctor is running around helping to creatively order supplies for the entire hospital. I am urging administration to build a list of somewhat medically trained people in the community to use as an auxiliary nursing force.

Trying to think of anything and everything we can do to keep people out of the hospital – I plead with our leadership to start building a framework of phone trees and community health volunteers to check on the vulnerable and elderly.

We need to compile and update a list of recovered people in the community, because in 1 month, they will be like gold.

I worry about where the dead will go.

This is our life now and for the foreseeable future. Acceptance will be key to maximizing survival, not only of individuals, but of communities and our way of life. We must not stick our heads in the sand.

Comfort always.

Photo: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, c. 1829-1833. in Metropolitan Museum of Art by Katsushika Hokusai.