Dr. Larry Edelman (B.S. ’01, biochemistry) wearing protective gear before a shift in the ER during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of same.

“It certainly is scary not knowing what could happen on a given day.”

After 11 years in the emergency room, Dr. Larry Edelman (B.S. ’01, biochemistry) has learned to expect the unexpected. Just not this.

“It was really never on my radar, though it should have been,” said Edelman, who earned his M.D. in 2006 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “I’ve envisioned all types of disaster situations, from terrorism nearby to multiple traumas or a mass shooting. I think anything like that was far more on the radar than a worldwide infectious pandemic. In recent years, SARS, MERS and Ebola have spared the United States.”

But there it was. Watching news reports about the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state, Edelman realized COVID-19 could hit home.

“I think once it hit the United States, it became much more of a reality,” Edelman explained.  “With reports of the Seattle area nursing home outbreak in February, I realized there was the possibility of it becoming a problem here in Maryland. And if there is a major pandemic, mass casualty situation or disaster in your local area, it’s going to come through the ER.”

Edelman works the night shift as an emergency physician in two hospitals north of Baltimore. He has dreamed of being a doctor since he was a kid.

“When I realized I wasn’t going to be a baseball player, I think I always knew I wanted to be in the health care profession,” he said.

Volunteering at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, as an undergraduate helped confirm Edelman’s decision to pursue a career in emergency medicine. Now, he’s one of countless medical professionals fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s intense, but not nearly as bad what New York City, Washington, D.C., or other hot spots around the country have seen. Though things seem to be getting better, this fight is far from over.

“I think we’re now more prepared and certainly we know how to deal with the disease a little better, but there’s still a steady stream of cases coming into the ER,” Edelman explained. “Patients with COVID-19 tend to be more likely to present to the emergency department in respiratory distress and they become critically ill very quickly. Also, when we see them in the hospital, they are no longer allowed to have any visitors due to the restrictions, so they are alone and scared.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak started, cases like heart attack, stroke and appendicitis that normally keep Edelman’s ER busy have been conspicuously absent, raising concerns that because of COVID-19, people may be afraid to come to the hospital. Meanwhile, many of the COVID-19 cases that come through the ER go directly to the intensive care unit (ICU), and that’s pushing ICU teams to the limit. Edelman and other emergency physicians now volunteer to work extra shifts assisting in the ICU to help meet the need.

“It’s a very different experience,” Edelman said.

Back in the ER, stress levels are high, shifts are busy and the fear is very real.

“I think my colleagues’ biggest fear is bringing it home to their families,” Edelman said. “I think most of us are saying we’re young and healthy and we’ll be fine. But there is a higher incidence of frontline health care workers who get coronavirus who are becoming critically ill or dying than the general population. Because they’re exposed to back to back patients who are very sick and are shedding a lot of virus.”

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential and letting your guard down is not an option.

“If we’re busy, I try to leave my N95 respirator mask on for most of the shift while I’m actively seeing new patients, because you can’t just go based on the patient’s symptoms, you have to presume everyone has COVID,” Edelman said.

Every day, every shift, Edelman does what he’s trained to do and tries to keep himself safe.

“You just take it one day at a time and try to get through. You hope you don’t make any mistakes at work that would cause you to contaminate yourself,” Edelman said. “And when you see your relief, you’re happy and try to get your stuff wrapped up and try to get yourself home.”

Even going home after a long shift in the ER comes with a new routine for Edelman—he’s taking extra steps to keep his wife and two-year-old daughter safe and hoping it’s enough.

“I close the garage door, strip down to my underwear, wipe down my car with sanitizer and jump straight into the shower,” Edelman said. “Whether I should be sleeping in a separate bedroom is a conversation I have daily with my colleagues and wife. A few have moved to the basement or a different bedroom. It would be a much easier decision to isolate if my child was older and self-sufficient. My child is two and she wouldn’t understand, so I would have to essentially disappear into a hotel room or the basement for the foreseeable future.”

It’s unlike anything he has ever imagined, but like the rest of us, Edelman is doing his best to adjust to the new normal and prepare for what’s ahead.

“I think this is going to go on well into the summer. Many experts say this is going to go on until we have a vaccine. Fortunately, we are now better at testing. We can get a test back the same day as opposed to the several-day process we had several weeks ago,” Edelman said. “But I think it’ll be a long time before things are back to normal.”

And while the daily reality of COVID-19 reminds him of the risks, and sometimes pushes him to the limit, it also strengthens his commitment to making a difference for as long as this outbreak continues.

“I still don’t consider myself a hero,” Edelman explained. “I think that what some health care workers are doing in New York, certainly those that have died caring for others, and those who have worked 30 days in a row in a very high-risk environment, literally not taking their PPE off for their entire 12-hour shift, seeing people die every day, all while they are isolating themselves from their families—they are the heroes. I feel like I’m just doing my job, and I’m proud that I can do that.”

Written by Leslie Miller

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