“We hold the phone and we cry”
An ICU physician witnesses tender moments at the bedside of COVID-19 patients.
When Emily Damuth, M.D., graduated from U-M Medical School in 2008, she had no idea that one day she would think holding a phone was the most important part of her job. With dual appointments in emergency medicine and critical care, Damuth’s skills have been in high demand during the surge of COVID-19 patients at New Jersey’s Cooper University Health System, just 90 miles from New York City.
In May, NJ.com, the largest provider of digital news in the state, published Damuth’s essay, “We hold the phone and we cry.” It details her time spent at the bedside of COVID-19 patients whose family members are unable to visit them. Damuth says bearing witness to conversations that would normally happen in private has strengthened the relationship between health care workers and families. “When I leave the ICU every night, my cell phone battery is always in the red, but I am certain that each phone call to a patient’s family is the most important ‘procedure’ that I performed that day,” she writes.
Here are a few of the most powerful moments she witnessed:
A 9-year-old girl saw her father for the first time after his breathing tube was removed. “Hi Daddy. I miss you,” the girl said, reminding Damuth of her own daughters’ voices. “My goggles trapped the tears and obscured my vision,” writes Damuth, who was the only one in the room, to understand how close that moment came to never happening.
A 16-year-old boy told his father, who had been on a ventilator for two weeks, that he too was not going to shave his “beard” until his father could. “I told him that his beard looked just like Dad’s, but if I am being honest, I could barely see the whiskers through the plastic biohazard bag covering the phone.” When Damuth spoke to Medicine at Michigan in late May, she said the patient was off extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and about to go home, after having been in the hospital for about a month.
A woman saw her husband open his eyes for the first time while he was on ECMO. A sedative was putting him to sleep, “so his nurse and I kept poking his underarm behind the camera to help him open his eyes each time she said I love you.”
A patient was extubated after 19 days on a ventilator, and Damuth watched his wife cry as she heard him speak for the first time since she dropped him off in the emergency department the previous month.
Damuth’s husband, Christopher Jones (M.D. 2008), also works in emergency medicine and has been on the front lines as well. Damuth and Jones were classmates in medical school. Because they bonded over their shared love of running, it was only fitting that they got engaged after a morning run on graduation day. At the time, the couple was in training for the annual Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. However, when Jones made plans to propose after their run that day, he had no idea Damuth would insist on a long run consistent with their rigorous training schedule. Damuth says Jones figured they were going to run about three miles. Instead they ended up running 13 miles, nearly a half marathon, before Jones proposed, pulling out an engagement ring he had duct taped to his leg.
Now the couple is living through another extraordinary moment, but this time it’s on a global scale. “We are just emotionally supporting each other because we’re both going through the same thing. There are stressors and fears,” says Damuth. “[But] our training is for this exact moment. We’re very thankful that we have a profession where we’re both needed. … That’s been invigorating.”
Top photo: Christopher Jones (M.D. 2008) and Emily Damuth (M.D. 2008) got engaged the day they graduated from the Medical School. Now they’re treating COVID-19 patients in New Jersey.