Out of Retirement, Into the Coronavirus Fight

As the fast-rising tide of sick people overwhelms hospitals and infects the doctors and nurses delivering care, officials across the country and around the world have asked retired health care workers to help reinforce systems in crisis. Raising their hands, they feel at once resolute and torn, weighing their expertise and desire to serve against their heightened vulnerabilities.

Thousands have answered the call. Here are a few of them.

New York City

Retired primary care doctor and former assistant commissioner for the Bronx Bureau of Neighborhood Health

I had my retirement party on Feb. 28. I was feeling so lucky. I’ve learned so much. I’ve been able to work with amazing people and to do some things that have been really good. And it turns out when you retire, people tell you things about yourself, ways that you had an effect, and they said just lovely things.

I thought I would be hiking with my partner and son in Wyoming right now. He talks about how wide open it is, how different from the Bronx, where we live. I was really looking forward to seeing the beauty of it through his eyes.

But so many things have changed. I’ve always wanted to make sure that I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. So that means I’ve got to rearrange my thoughts about retirement. I signed up online on March 15.

I’m in a higher than average risk group, so there’s a lot of concern from my family. Just age puts me at a modest risk. And I’m a fairly recent cancer survivor. I had surgery and radiation therapy and chemotherapy and those things have an effect on your immune system.

There have been a lot of discussions with the family. If you’ve had anybody in your family or close circle who’s gone through the trifecta of cancer treatments, everybody’s done a lot already. They’ve invested a lot in me being alive. I think of this even when I get on my bike: “I better not have a crash because people really worked hard to keep me alive.”

For my family and friends, I don’t want to take an undue risk. And I also have this funny pressure of, “Oh my goodness, if I got sick and I’m in a higher risk group to have more difficult complications, then I myself would clog up an E.R. spot or a hospital bed or a ventilator. I can’t do that, those are precious resources!”

But I am more than confident that we know enough to be able to safeguard health care workers and health care volunteers. I have skills to put to good use, especially in these troubled times.

I feel lucky that because I have a medical degree, I have a path to help out. It feels like a gift.


Crystal Lake, Ill.

Retired emergency room nurse

It was really hard to retire. Emergency medicine is a drug and it’s like withdrawing. We have the same camaraderie as cops and firefighters.


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I think the reason I was so antsy to get back for this is because I’m still talking to the people that I worked with. They’re so overwhelmed and you just don’t want to see your friends get hammered without helping. And when you hear the reports on the E.R. Facebook group, “We have no masks. We’re wearing our masks for 12 hour shifts or days or until they start to deteriorate.” You feel like you abandoned them and you can’t do anything.

Even if I went back to the hospital, they would not put me in the E.R. because of my age. I’m allegedly higher risk. I told the director of public health here, “If you need any help, let me know.” She said, “Yeah, we need people on the phone.” That’s great. I can do something.

When we come into the call center, they check our temps and ask if we have symptoms. Everybody has a little cubicle and a phone with the latest information in front of them. Of course you wipe everything down. When I first started, the calls were mostly from physicians wanting to know if they could get patients tested. There have been a few people that I really worried about. You’re thinking, “Oh God, I hope this one doesn’t end up with a respiratory arrest in the middle of the night.” Of course you tell them, go to the E.R. if you can’t get your breath.

I feel like I’m able to do something. It’s not perfect. In my ideal world, I’d be back in the E.R.


Carlsbad, Calif.

Retired family physician and embassy doctor in the Foreign Service

I retired about a year and a half ago and wanted to continue using my medical skills but in a volunteer capacity. So I joined lots of organizations. With the California Medical Assistance Team, I deployed last fall for the fires in California, providing medical care for the firefighters and taking care of people who were evacuated from their homes but had nowhere to go.

This came up and so I volunteered to help with the Covid patients.

So far I’ve had two deployments with Covid.

The first one was to a place called Asilomar, it’s a state park area in Monterey. We received patients from the Grand Princess. Some had no symptoms; one gentleman was on oxygen. We did that for about two weeks. Then we were deployed to our current location in San Mateo.

We’ve taken over a Holiday Inn. The County of San Mateo needed somebody to manage it medically. We came here and kind of started this from scratch. We’re here with the Army National Guard and the California National Guard. I’m serving as the medical director.

The hospitals need to deal with the acute patients. So we started receiving patients who are Covid positive and stable, they don’t need to be in a hospital setting, but they can’t go back to a nursing home or group home, or they can’t isolate from elderly family members or people who are immune-suppressed.

We have teams going in every two hours to take care of our current residents. It’s not just checking patients and temperatures; they’re changing diapers and moving them so they don’t get bed sores. So we’re there doing a lot of basic care. Everybody’s got to pitch in and do what’s needed for the patient.

People are really scared that health providers can get this and become sick. It’s in the back of my mind, to be honest. I know I’m in a higher risk. But even the people who aren’t at higher risk, there are so many health care workers doing this, hundreds of thousands. I’m sure all their families are worried about what they’re doing.


New York City

Semiretired nurse

I’ve done just about everything you can think of in terms of nursing: surgery, neonatal intensive care unit, I.C.U., burn unit. I retired from Mount Sinai about seven years ago.

My motivation for being a volunteer is 9/11. At the time I was working in the surgical suite but I was off that day. I remember watching the Twin Towers and I said to my wife, “I need to go down to the hospital.” So I got there and everybody available was standing around waiting for the victims to arrive. And no one came. I’ll never forget that feeling of helplessness that we couldn’t do anything.

Now with this situation, at least I’m able to actually participate and try to help. I’m waiting for a facility in the Bronx seeking volunteers.

My wife is very concerned. If she had the choice, she would not let me out of the house. So it’s a difficult choice for me and it’s difficult for her to accept.

I’m thinking that they may put me in a less risky role because of my age. But because of my skills — I.C.U., isolation, ventilators — they could say, we need you. Of course I would be somewhat skeptical, anxious. It’s not just me, it’s also my wife, my children, my grandchildren. But it’s something that I would feel obligated to do because it’s the right thing to do.


Chicago

Semiretired internal medicine doctor

I had a private practice for 29 years. I closed my practice in 2018 and have been working part-time since.

I’m in that risk group by age and I’ve got some chronic illnesses that affect the immune system. My husband is over 70 and also has a pre-existing condition that puts him at greater risk. So I feel like I have some responsibility for myself and for him. I am the last part of my immediate nuclear family, so if I got sick, I would truly be relying on others to care for me. I think that if I was younger and I didn’t have these other pre-existing conditions, I would probably feel like I’m in a better position to help in more ways.

But I got emails from a private company saying that because of the Covid crisis, they need doctors for telehealth. At least with the telehealth, I feel like I am making a contribution, and lessening the burden for the health care professionals. I’m glad this opportunity is available now, whereas it wasn’t as available 10 or 15 years ago.


Greenwood Village, Colo.

Retired psychiatrist

I was in private practice for about 45 years and retired about six years ago.

Like everyone else, I’ve been riveted to the news. Seeing the stress on physicians, especially in the hardest hit areas like New York, and recognizing there’s going to be a need for volunteer help from all kinds of health professionals, including physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and so on, it just seemed clear to me that if there was any way that I might be able to help, even in some limited way, I would be more than happy to do that. I feel an obligation to the public.

I think thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, are undergoing extraordinary stress and anxiety. There might be some people who are in treatment for a psychiatric diagnosis, this might destabilize them possibly. And then there’s the broad swath of the population who are just afraid of what’s going to happen. So there might be an increase in anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, substance use disorders. I think those are the main things that are likely to happen and would be really sort of expected in a crisis of this kind. So, I could be available to try to help people through that.


Salem, Ore.

Retired physician assistant

I retired from paid work as a P.A. in 2012. I was 65 at the time and I wanted to be able to devote more time to volunteer activities, including animal-assisted therapy, working with hospice clients and working as a lay chaplain.

Because of my medical training, skills and experience, I would like to be useful during the pandemic here in my own community. And so, I contacted the local staff person for the Medical Reserve Corps in Marion County and asked how I could contribute without doing direct patient care. She encouraged me to take an online survey of potential volunteers. They determine who might be most valuable where and when.

I also got an email from a former colleague telling me that our licensing board has put out a call for lapsed licensees to reactivate on an emergency and expedited basis. So I reached out to some of my colleagues at Kaiser who are still working. They said we need you and would strongly encourage you to do it because Kaiser is almost exclusively doing telemedicine right now. So I’m waiting to hear back.

I need to feel like I’m helping in some way to feel a sense of worth.

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