I Fought COVID—Both as a Black Doctor and a Patient

Joseph Gallien, MD
Photo credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.
Photo credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.

From Men's Health

Photo credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.
Photo credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.

Around March, COVID cases progressed overseas and started hitting New York. That’s when we started trying to protect ourselves in the ER.

I was an ER resident at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital, where I worked between its campuses at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medical Center. We were fortunate to have a pretty decent supply of PPE, including masks and gowns, which allowed us to protect ourselves the best we could.

But I was in the ER on a daily basis, where each day the number of patients increased significantly. We would see upwards of 50 patients a day who were sick enough to be hospitalized. And it was about a month later that I started to develop these headaches, which was weird. I never get headaches. They continued for about three days in a row, and on the third night it was really painful. I went home, took some medication, and tried to fall asleep. The next day, I started to have mild body aches. I took my temperature right before I was due to go into work again, and I had spiked a fever.

Right then and there, I knew I had COVID. It’s very hard to say how I got it. By that point, I had tons of exposure to these patients. It’s unclear whether it was the overall exposure or one incident with a critically ill patient. Nearly half of my resident class ended up contracting COVID—but not everyone had as severe symptoms as me.

I didn’t want to go to the emergency room, because I was checking all my vitals at home and they were pretty much okay. But three days later I found myself having respiratory distress. I became tachypneic, meaning my respiratory rate was higher, like I was fighting to get more air, even though my oxygen levels were never that low. I lost my sense of taste and smell, and then my appetite just plummeted. I lost close to 13 pounds over that two-week period because I didn’t have any appetite.

It got to the point where I had to go to the hospital’s Columbia campus for treatment. As I walked through the triage area, my coworkers looked horrified. I knew by their faces that I wasn’t doing well. They placed me on a monitor, got IVs to give me some fluids because I was super dehydrated, and put me on a little oxygen.

I was hospitalized for five days. I used the time to reflect and be appreciative, because there were so many people who were not as fortunate as me and could not bounce back from it. COVID has been a big eye-opener for all of us. There needs to be a change within health care—and the way that we approach taking care of patients—by getting in front of these things more rather than being on the defensive, especially when it comes to our minority communities.

We’ve seen how COVID disproportionately affects the Black community. Adding to that, there’s been a persistent disparity between the number of Black doctors and patients. If you go all the way back to the 1970s, the number of Black male applicants to medical school has only declined, despite the growing patient population of minorities from low socioeconomic backgrounds. That speaks volumes—and it creates issues.

What we have come to find is that these individuals are more vulnerable to health-care-related problems. One, they may not have health insurance altogether. Two, they tend not to see a health-care provider until the last minute, because they try to deal with it themselves. And three, their lack of health literacy can make it hard for them to understand what their physician is saying.

Honestly, I didn’t even think about the lack of minorities in medicine when I first decided to do it. I am a first-generation-college individual. I grew up in Louisiana in a majority-Black community, went to majority-Black institutions, including Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU in New Orleans.

I chose LSU for medical school for kind of the complete opposite reasons that I chose Xavier initially. In addition to comparatively low tuition, I needed a taste of the real world.

It’s hard as a Black male physician. There are times when I walk into a room with a white colleague that could be a nurse or anyone else and the patient automatically speaks to them, thinking they’re the physician. Or I’ve had incidents in which I walk into a patient’s room and they ask, “Where are you going to take me? You’re transport, right?” It can weigh heavy on you. However, you have to take a step back and remember the reason that you’ve done this in the first place.

For me, I love being in an emergency room, where I don’t know what’s going to come in next. But everyone can’t say the same. It weighs on people differently, especially with the climate we’re in with all of the injustice. I am saddened by all of the hardship and hurt so many individuals have endured this year. I pray that we all continue to fight this fight together instead of separately and come up with change, because change is long overdue.

COVID really affected so many people, whether that’s other health-care workers, essential workers, patients themselves, or the families that were affected. Because there were times when you as a provider had to make very, very tough choices about life or death. Like, if we put this individual on this ventilator, there’s a very high chance they will never come off of it. We’d have to explain that to the patient and the family, which was hard coming from the emergency-medicine side of things, because our perspective is to do everything we can to save their life.

It was close to a month before I was able to return to work after contracting COVID. I’ve since moved back home to Lake Charles, Louisiana, by way of Houston. It’s a small community where I work, Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. But I’m happy I made the decision.

I wanted to be around my family and friends—and get the chance to indulge in some good home cooking that I haven’t had in a while. —As told to KC Ifeanyi

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