(Read a shorter, published version of this on World Magazine’s website.)
It’s three am and I’m standing in the ornately decorated elevator lobby of NewYork-Presbyterian hospital. The multi-colored marble floor is cold and oil portraits of billionaire donors stare down from the wall. I don’t know that those portraits have ever seen their grand foyer quite like this. A dozen stretchers are parked along one wall and folding dividers have sectioned off what we are generously calling rooms. There are papers indicating the number of each “room” stuck to the walls, and none of the papers match. Some are printer paper, some notebook, and all written in different pens.
The patients vary, too. In space 12, a mid-forties lady here for a ROMI (to ‘rule out’ a heart attack) is propped in her bed, bored and wondering what to do in the middle of the night when she’s stuck on a stretcher, parked in a make-shift patient ward that has a three story ceiling and elegant stonework; one where all the medical supplies are on a folding table and the nurse is working off a computer on a rolling desk. An elderly demented gentleman, when I try to explain that I’m going to put in an IV, just smiles and nods, clearly unable to understand what I’m saying past the hoarseness of laryngitis in my throat. My voice is so distorted, I have to repeat myself three times before the nurse hears me and tells me to start him on IV maintenance fluids.
Phones ring, radios beep and in the semi-darkness of the massive vestibule, the area nurse scribbles notes on paper, playing Tetris with patients and sending me off to pick them up from corridors and ambulance bays and nooks that are normally used for storage. For the number of patients stacked into the hospital, things are surprisingly calm. Dragging stretchers along behind me is more of a challenge than usual due to the organized clutter, but every patient has a nurse, every area has a doctor, and no one is running, yelling, or bleeding excessively. We are out of regular blankets, so I start to tell my patients that these replacement covers are ‘the special fuzzy ones.’ They are fuzzy, but I have no idea where they came from.
While I’m there, it never dies down. Ambulance after ambulance bring patients from hospitals whose power has been cut, whose generators have died, whose floors have been flooded. EMTs carry hypothermic shut-ins that they hauled out from unheated fifth floor walk-ups. Family members walk through our doors with grandparents who are dependent on supplemental oxygen that is running out. It’s rumored that we have hundreds of extra patients and the practical part of me wonders where all the spare beds came from. Do we just have a giant room in the basement full of stretchers? My favorite resident whisks by, but recognizes me and stops long enough to say hi and thank me for coming in the middle of the night to volunteer even though I’m on leave and am sick. The staff is tired and coffee is no longer keeping the dark circles from encroaching.
No one thinks this is glamorous. It is not sexy or impressive or flashy. It’s just what needs to be done. A hurricane hits, a hospital pulls together. The fact that I have other important things to do doesn’t matter. As I’m on the phone with my dad, before leaving to walk to the hospital in the gusting wind and rain, he reminds me, “Taryn, you’re a doctor. This is what you do.”
He’s right. I am going to be a doctor. This is what I do. This is where God has called me, and I’ve known that my whole life. When people need me, I go, even if it’s just to move gurneys, take vital signs, and help the nurse remember which patient is behind which divider. A lifelong passion for medical disaster relief is something God instilled me. Responding to the aftermath of a tsunami in Samoa, a hurricane in New York, assisting torture survivors – this is who I am created to be in my deepest core.
Not only am I going to be a doctor, I’m going to be one of these doctors. Not the ones doing the exciting work of cracking chests or stabilizing amputations but the ones who are taking care of elderly women with bladder infections, young men with appendicitis, teenagers who drank contaminated water, mothers who had the bad timing to go into labor while the island is being pummeled by Sandy. There are moments of excitement, when an ambulance calls ahead with a trauma or a heart attack walks through our doors. But that’s not the work that’s mostly being done tonight. Tonight is not a movie set or the plot of a novel or the scene in a popular television show. It’s careful planning, dedicated workers, elbow grease, ingenuity, flexibility and persistence.
While I’m here, my roommate is volunteering overnight at the college where we normally have church services, because it’s been turned into an evacuation center. A university classmate has been working at a shelter in a heavily damaged area for the last four days without a break. A sister in Christ is helping in lower Manhattan, passing out clean water and packaged meals to long lines of people without power in “The Dark Zone.” Someone asks me why all of us are doing this and I tell him, “Because we’re the church. We’re followers of Christ, doing his work. This is how we live our faith.”
The other things I need to do – they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Being there when it’s inconvenient, losing sleep for days on end, going home to my tiny apartment that’s packed with refugee friends, staying past the end of my scheduled shift, and being willing to do the menial tasks even with seven and a half years of education under my belt – to find a blanket, clean an adult diaper, or change a bed – this matters. This is being the body of Christ. This is being the living church. This is why God created me and how I become his hands and feet. I’m (almost) a doctor and this is what I do.
*Patient details have been changed to ensure anonymity.