COMMENTARY

When Uncertainty Calls: An ER Doc's COVID Journey

Natalie's Story

Natalie Hubbard, DO; Jeffrey B. Teitler, MFA, photographer

Disclosures

September 15, 2020

Editor's note: In an effort to preserve the experiences of healthcare workers on the front lines, Medscape developed a set of artistic portraits of hospital practitioners who worked (and are working) through this pandemic. These images are accompanied by a short essay written by the participants that gives us a glimpse of their experience. It is a privilege to capture these stories, and we do so with the hope that those who risked their health, lives, and families in the service of others are not forgotten.

Natalie Hubbard, DO: In Her Own Words

Uncertainty can feel like floating — or drowning. As an emergency physician, I thought I was comfortable riding those waves.

Yet when he proposed, it took only a one-word answer for the next two and a half years to feel like drowning.

Uncertainty screamed.


 

One night, when I arrived home, his Facebook page was open. I'm not the type to snoop around, but there it was, lighting up the screen: He was having an affair.

I was an emergency medicine resident in the Bronx when we went through the divorce. This experience was the most uncertain yet freeing time of my life.

Several weeks later, I was elected chief resident.


 

I began to grow comfortable with uncertainty. I became familiar with not knowing what I would see on each shift.

But a 66-year-old woman was sitting up and talking to me with oxygen at 80%, and I knew I was right back in it. Then her breathing became labored. Her condition was deteriorating, and while I knew the protocols, I had an uncertain instinct.

This was my first COVID patient. All of the information at this point indicated "do not intubate." But everything I saw told me that that was exactly what she needed. Infection was evident throughout her lung, ground-glass opacity as bad as it gets.

Everyone agreed: Do not intubate. And I didn't.

Twenty-four hours later, I followed up on her status. She was in the ICU and intubated. But she walked out weeks later.


 

Months of drain and exhaustion forced uncertainty to be my baseline again. I never got comfortable with telling families that I didn't know how their mother or father would survive.

At times, I would share my day with my new boyfriend, who is an inner-city police officer.

Then in May, we learned of the killing of George Floyd.

My boyfriend was horrified at the news. He watched as his job that he did honorably turned far more dangerous, with increased violence and calls to defund the police.

On my other side is my best friend, a Black Lives Matter activist. I fully share the vision of equality and social justice that she fights for. I feel it directly as I treat patients with hypertension, sickle cell, trauma. I am so proud of my friend's work in representing minorities in the legal system.

She knows I'm going out with a police officer. We talk. But we don't talk about that. We are in an uncertain time.


 

The feeling of floating and drowning stays with me now more than ever. It's painful, but I make myself hold on, looking and listening for something bright to appear: The "thank you's" during a pandemic. Letters from family and friends. Donations of gloves and masks.

In the worst of times, we see glimmers of the best of humanity. That is certain. Our heads are above water. We will get through this. Keep listening.

Jeffrey B. Teitler is a professor of filmmaking at Central Connecticut State University and the director of Envision Films. His scripted and nonscripted works have been presented nationwide, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations, and his work has been an official selection and/or has won at a number of film festivals.

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