Today marks one hundred years since my father, Dr. Robert C. Wilson III was born. My dad died peacefully in December of 2016 at the ripe old age of 96 3/4. Were he alive today, he would be following the news about COVID-19 with great interest and empathy.
Trained at Columbia University Medical School during World War II, my father did his residency at Bellevue Hospital after recovering for two years in a VA hospital from the tuberculosis he contracted from the service members he treated as an Army Captain in the medical corps.
At that time Bellevue was the primary health care provider for New York City’s indigent ill, most of whom were terminal. There were few treatments available then to stem the cancer, tuberculosis, advanced cirrhosis, pneumonia and heart disease that his mostly homeless patients suffered from. His main task was to hold the hands of his dying charges to prevent them from passing from this life to whatever lay ahead alone, no family by their side. He had no cures to offer, which wracked his soul. It changed him forever.
He would be so saddened to see Bellevue today, site of the city’s Medical Examiner’s office among other functions, being used as a makeshift morgue for COVID-19 victims. Those poor souls are dying in hospital without family members too. Last moments are shared, if possible,on FaceTime. Last rites are being performed virtually, if at all. It all feels very medieval, despite the high tech equipment, PPE and sterility of the hospital environment.
Some of the saddest tweets in my feed share the stories of health care workers unable to do even as much as my father did for dying patients. Overwhelmed by the number of cases they are handling, prevented by protocol from touching patients unnecessarily, they are heartbroken to be unable to offer the simple but profound solace of an empathetic presence at a deathbed. They too will be changed forever.
My father had many flaws. He was an absent father much of the time. He could be unfeeling, using sarcasm to wound or belittle. He was not a hero. But he was a damn good doctor who put his patients first, who was beloved by his associates, who saved many lives, caring more about that result than his patients’ ability to compensate him.
Our house overflowed at holiday time with baked goods, homemade presents, casseroles and flowers from the grateful families who he served, many of whom had no insurance or ability to pay for his services. His time at Bellevue taught him that even the poorest, oldest, sickest, most flawed among us have dignity.
Those on the frontline today are also not heroes. They are complicated people like my dad: human, with human frailties. They are regular people with wives, husbands, parents, kids, friends, neighbors, lovers. But like him they took an oath. Like him they may contract a serious–hopefully not fatal–disease doing their duty. If he were alive today he would be sad for them, worried for their families, but proud as hell of the job they were doing, and proud of New York for supporting them as best we can. And so am I. Godspeed Dad, I love you. And Godspeed to all who are following in his footsteps.