'If you’re not scared yet, you should be': An emergency doctor on the 'war' taking place in New York's hospitals

  • Dr Erik Blutinger is an emergency doctor in his first year out of training and he works at Mount Sinai hospital in New York. The city is the worst-hit place in the US by coronavirus and he explains what the mood and situation is like as he and his colleagues deal with the pandemic.

“How does this compare to 9/11?” I was asked by a young patient, bleary-eyed with respiratory distress, searching for hope.

I am an emergency medicine doctor in the New York City area of Queens, the "epicentre of the epicentre" of coronavirus in the US.

During every shift we are waging war against an invisible enemy, one that brings patients in on stretchers, gasping for air, alone and with nowhere to turn.

No family members (or other visitors) are allowed to set foot into the hospitals and people are dying, alone.

Dr Erik Bluntinger is in his first year out of training. Credit: Dr Erik Bluntinger

On September 11, 2001, New York City was attacked and New Yorkers were motivated by anger to retaliate against a common enemy after almost 3,000 people were killed when two planes were crashed into the Twin Towers and they collapsed.

The towers were America's iconic symbol for human imagination and will.

Nineteen years later and a deadly virus has caused almost 22,000 deaths across the US, more than 10,000 deaths in New York.

Across the globe, more than 100,000 people have died and the world is paralysed by fear as we live through scenes almost seeming to come from a Hollywood contagion blockbuster.

Now imagine multiple hits, every hour, every day, for weeks at a time without an end in sight.

This is the new reality.

Mount Sinai hospital is just one of many in New York treating coronavirus patients. Credit: AP

The bustling streets of Manhattan have turned empty, yet our hospital's hallways are filled with beds, monitors and oxygen tanks.

It is impossible to walk in a straight line from one end to the other.

Patients are admitted and often remain in our hallways for days at a time, waiting for an inpatient bed in the emergency room.

New York City's emergency rooms are bursting at the seams even though droves of people are not crowding the hospital entrance.

Last month, President Donald Trump ordered the deployment of the USNS Comfort to New York - a Navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds to help relieve hospital crowding.

But hospitals initially struggled to meet their strict criteria, holding on to so many patients without any place for them to go.

What was intended to provide relief for handling surge capacity has only led to more frustration and disappointment in trying to manage the relentless influx of patients.

  • Dr Erik Blutinger says the 34-year-old friend of the doorman in his building has died after testing positive for coronavirus

In New York, we are approaching our “Pearl Harbor” moment.

Instead of loading rifles with ammunition, we are strapping on protective masks and goggles to our face.

Your mind races, desperately recalling every surface touched by your hands, white coat and shoes, wondering when - not if - the disease will find its way into your lungs.

The hissing sound of oxygen permeates the emergency department.

The hospital speaker system continuously blares "code 99", a code word for a patient suffering a cardiac arrest.

Our hospital demand for performing life-saving measures remains high, although thankfully the number of cases have appeared to stagnate this week.

If you get sick, there is a chance that you will not have a ventilator.

  • Dr Erik Blutinger says he was warned his first year of training would be hard, but never did he expect to be working amid a pandemic

It is a testament of how overwhelmed our system is becoming, despite public messaging to the contrary.

In fact, some hospitals have already requested ventilators from animal hospitals and that need will only rise in the coming weeks.

Despite our fear, we keep our heads high and look to a few encouraging signs for hope.

We are seeing Covid-19 patients successfully discharged from our hospital; a total of more than 4,200 from New York State hospitals alone.

Survivors are beginning to emerge, including a 104-year-old Army veteran who recovered just in-time for his 104th birthday (and hopefully a tiger, who was detected positive recently at the Bronx zoo).

Health workers are motivated to work with a renewed sense of purpose and professionalism.

Government agencies are applying an "all hands on deck" approach to approving novel therapies including using the blood plasma of those who have recovered from coronavirus - which contains antibodies to tackle Covid-19 - and giving it to those who are seriously ill, in the coming weeks to months.

There are times in history when we are called to action, to rise above our personal wants and desires and defend our nation.

This is that time.

My generation has been given a historical gift: the chance to build a better future for our children on the ground.

We are in the crisis of our lifetime.