Care during COVID-19: A Physician’s Greyshirt Experience

It was late in the evening after another busy shift in the emergency department. I grabbed my bag, a now-cold cup of coffee, and headed towards my car. I was physically and emotionally drained, but as I flipped through news articles, all centered on the COVID crisis, I wished I could do more. The week prior I had volunteered with Team Rubicon in a food pantry. We’d spent the day packing meal boxes and getting food into the homes and bellies of over 200 families. It was an amazing experience, but only briefly satiated my desire to serve the community. A few of my fellow grey shirts had mentioned something about a medical op at the Santa Clara Convention Center, but I hadn’t heard much more since. Just as I got to my car I received the text message we Team Rubicon volunteers all know and love so well, “Deploy with Team Rubicon!”. My spirits rose and I grew excited. The next mission was about to kick off.

When I first stepped foot into the convention center I was warmly welcomed by one of the support staff in an ever-familiar grey shirt—our work uniform, a symbol somehow imbued with the power to spontaneously turn stranger to friend. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Convention Center had been transformed into a medical respite by the California Air National Guard, and was being staffed by Team Rubicon with the mission of caring for the COVID-positive patients who had no safe means of self-quarantine. This domestic medical operation was a first for Team Rubicon, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.

The Santa Clara experience meant a lot to me for multiple reasons. I had deployed to Florida with TR in the past, mucking out homes and clearing fallen trees during the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Florida. Operation Amberjack truly was an invaluable experience—we helped countless families and I built friendships I believe will last a lifetime. But, this was different. Being near the end of my own medical residency in emergency medicine, it was an opportunity for me to not only put that training to use, but to prove to myself that I had what it takes to do so. At Santa Clara, I didn’t have the oversight of an attending physician, nor the endless resources of a hospital. It was me, a team of motivated medical and support staff, and a group of patients infected with a virus we at the time knew little about. Having seen, diagnosed, and dispositioned many patients with the novel coronavirus in the emergency department, I was excited for the opportunity to experience the latter half of their care.

Onur M. Yenigun and a colleague during Team Rubicon’s Santa Clara medical operation.

It was challenging, but we all grew confident, quickly realizing we had what it takes to care for our patients. We grew curious, searching for means of improving patient care and workflow. We grew close, a group of newly-minted friends that could function as a well-oiled machine. Things quickly set into place and we were moving with purpose and efficiency—a testament not only to the highly organized structure of TR, but also to the mindset and adaptability of its volunteers.

I’ll never forget my final shift. We spent the closing hours with our patients listening to music, talking, and playing card games. We bonded, continued to build trust in one another, and further forged that “therapeutic relationship” I learned about in medical school.

As we played I noticed their respiratory rate, the full sentences they spoke in a single breath, and the occasional non-productive cough. I saw the smiles and felt their energy as we laughed during a game of Uno, and it was then I realized that healing had occurred under that roof. I was awful at the game, but in that moment felt pretty good as a physician.

It was so different. Earlier that day I had worked a shift in the emergency department. I quickly transitioned from room to room seeing patients, moving as fast as possible. Short and swift patient encounters are often a necessity in our field given the acuity and volume of patients we see. As much as I absolutely love my job, I rarely get to truly connect with and get to know my patients. This was different. I heard life stories, learned habits, made memories, and became a part of these wonderful people’s world that month. Together we made it through a challenging time, and none of us will forget it.

With this experience now at a close, our patients back home, and the team all moved on I want to express gratitude for my team, for their hard work and dedication, as well as to my patients not only for their strength but also for welcoming me as their physician and forever grateful friend.

Team Rubicon serves as a beacon of light and hope, not only for the communities that we have the opportunity to serve, but also for those of us yearning for a chance to positively impact the lives of those both near and far.

With an eager heart, I await the next call.