‘I am running on fumes’: Doctor describes the ‘bone-deep weariness’ of working amid a pandemic

Doctor sitting with head in hands
A hospital doctor has claimed he is 'running on fumes' amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

A medic has described the “bone-deep weariness” he endures while working amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Bernard Trappey works in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Minnesota, which repurposed an old hospital into the state’s first COVID-specific treatment centre in March.

The day before his first shift, Dr Trappey and his wife created wills online, witnessed by neighbours on their front porch.

With his wife expecting their first child, Dr Trappey has cautiously been living in a hotel.

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While he makes up one of many healthcare workers “putting their lives at risk”, Dr Trappey initially took comfort that members of the public were “drastically changing their lives to flatten the curve”.

Fast forward five months, feelings of hope gave way to frustration “as the heartwarming images of mutual sacrifice were replaced by images of protests about the sanctity of dining out and getting haircuts”.

“Running on fumes”, Dr Trappey “puts his head down and labours through 11-hour shifts” bolstered only by the imminent arrival of his unborn son.

Doctors running for the surgery
The medic wonders every day 'how many patients who had been stable yesterday will now be in intensive care?'. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

Writing in the journal JAMA, Dr Trappey described a recent drive from his hotel to the hospital.

“Choked with traffic – a reminder that while the pandemic rages on within our [hospital] walls, outside life goes on, seemingly unbothered,” he said.

Dr Trappey claims he takes a few moments before every shift to gather his thoughts in the car park.

“The same questions every day,” he wrote.

“How many new coronavirus patients will we admit today? How many patients who had been stable yesterday would now be in the intensive care unit? Or dead? Will this ever end?”

Dr Trappey has blasted the US’ “premature return to normalcy”.

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Speaking of the day before his first shift, Dr Trappey wrote: “A cold, spring rain fell as my wife and I stood on our front porch and hugged.

“I could feel the slight bump that was just starting to signal she was carrying our first child.

“We cried and hoped it would not be the last time we ever touched.

“But despite the fear and the lack of knowledge of what the weeks ahead would hold, there was also a sense of clarity and purpose.

“When the first patient with COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] arrived, I had no doubt I was where I was supposed to be.”

Dr Trappey was also bolstered by the local community’s response to the pandemic.

“People lined up on the lawn outside of the hospital holding signs and singing songs of support,” he wrote.

“Restaurants and caterers donated more meals than we could possibly eat. Military jets flew overhead.

“The shared sacrifice was apparent in the empty parking lots and closed restaurants I passed on the way back and forth from the hotel to the hospital every day.

“At times, early in the morning, mine would be the only car on the road.”

Five months later, “the feelings of the spring were a distant memory”.

Dr Trappey described his despair at social media posts showing celebratory gatherings and packed restaurants.

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“Now, even frustration has given way to a bone-deep sense of weariness and resignation,” he wrote. “I am running on fumes.”

Despite his grievances, Dr Trappey is eagerly awaiting the birth of his son.

“After a period of quarantine in the hotel, I will return home,” he wrote.

“Our child will be born and I will take advantage of a generous stretch of parental leave.

“That is as far ahead as I allow myself to think. I am too exhausted by the events of the summer to think about what the fall or the winter will bring. So I don’t.”

The pandemic has left Dr Trappey a “realist” and of the opinion “planning too far into the future is futile”.

“But if I am truly honest with myself, I worry the events of the summer have made me afraid to envision the new world into which my child will be born,” he wrote.