Saturday, May 2, 2020


The late Senator John McCain has long been one of my heroes. His story is familiar to most Americans: as a 31 year-old naval aviator during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in October 1967. He remained a prisoner of war for five and a half years. During that time, he was frequently subjected to unimaginably harsh physical and psychological torture, including two full years in solitary confinement. It may be less well known that he had an easy way out. After his father, a U.S. Navy Admiral, was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater in mid-1968, McCain's captors offered to release him. By this time, McCain had lost 50 pounds and was near death. Nonetheless, he refused, citing the U.S. military code of conduct, which advises officers not to accept special favors from the enemy and to agree to be released in the order they were captured. It's likely that McCain was motivated not only by adherence to the code, but by solidarity with his fellow prisoners-of-war, many of whom had endured captivity for considerably longer.

Americans have now endured several weeks of "shelter-in-place" or "lockdown" orders enacted to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, which as of May 2 had claimed nearly 65,000 lives nationally, including more than 2,000 in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As states begin to cautiously loosen public health restrictions in the hope of restarting their economies, there are increasing signs that many citizens are losing patience with social distancing: cell phone data show increased movement outside of homes, large crowds in California turned out to protest beach closures, and heavily armed men invaded Michigan's state capitol to protest the governor's stay-at-home order.

I've written before about the "girl in the well" phenomenon, a psychological effect that causes us to be captivated by news about one or small numbers of endangered persons (remember the Thai Cave Rescue in 2018?) but shrug our shoulders when thousands or millions are at risk. If you don't personally know anyone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19, you might be wondering if the continuing sacrifice is really worth it. You miss going out to dinner with family and friends, worshiping with your faith community, watching or participating in your favorite sports. Maybe your child or favorite niece or nephew won't be able to attend their prom this year or experience the thrill of an in-person graduation ceremony. Maybe you wonder: is the cure worse than the disease?

I am a doctor, but I'm not on the front lines. Thus far, all of my patients who have had COVID-19 have recovered, and most haven't needed to be hospitalized. But the hundreds of patients who have been admitted to my hospital haven't been nearly as fortunate, and some, sadly, aren't making it out alive. Every day at the office (yes, I still commute to a physical office, even though I haven't seen a patient in person in more than a month), I strongly advise my most vulnerable patients to stay home or keep their distance from others when they must go out for grocery shopping or exercise. But I can't protect them adequately without your help. You can take the easy way out: start getting together with friends again, discard the mask - and frankly, odds are that you, personally, will probably be okay. Or, in the patriotic spirit of John McCain, who championed a "cause greater than self," you can stoically endure this shelter-in-place for as long as it takes to flatten the curve on this unprecedented pandemic, out of solidarity for millions of potential victims you don't know but who are depending on you to do the right thing.