Early in March, it started to become clear that COVID-19 would hit hard, and that New York City would likely become a new epicenter.
International travel shut down and my attendings and colleagues canceled long-awaited spring meetings overseas. Elective surgeries were canceled, first tentatively, and then with such urgency that I knew my fellowship in NYC would not end how I had envisioned.
As the stay-at-home orders were enacted, New York became a ghost town with few people out on the streets and closed signs on every storefront. Walking to Bellevue after seeing a post-op cosmetic patient on the upper east side (one of the last scheduled surgeries I did in March), I passed only a handful of people on the usually overrun and busy streets.
The quiet was eerie. By mid-March, the hospitals outside of Manhattan were becoming overwhelmed and the larger NYC hospitals started ramping up their efforts of preparedness. Tents were erected outside hospitals and in Central Park, surgical post-anesthesia care units were converted to intensive care units, my private practice attendings donated the ventilators from their surgical suites and talks of redeployment began.
The threat of inadequate personal protective equipment was a daily concern. My surgical log changed from routine oculoplastics to only emergencies like enucleations, fractures and trauma or advanced skin cancers.
By April, the majority of the residents and attendings with whom I work at Cornell, Columbia and NYU had been redeployed to the emergency room, medicine units or to administrative duties to help with the crisis. These ophthalmologists are heroes and demonstrate ophthalmology’s important role within the greater house of medicine. Our beloved friend and New York ophthalmologist Jay Galst, MD, lost his life while others suffered with prolonged illness or family losses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll, but I am confident we will heal and that medicine and medical education will forever change. We have seen small successes, including a new city-wide virtual ophthalmology curriculum for residents.
As we return to elective surgeries and reopen clinics, the collaboration and creativity we have seen around the world will empower our practice and benefit our patients.
About the author: Andrea A. Tooley, MD, is a member of the Academy’s YO Committee. She is completing her fellowship in oculoplastics in New York and will be starting practice at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.