Ameer Farooq is a 5th year general surgery resident at the University of Calgary and the incoming colorectal fellow at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, BC.
I hate being on the bench.
I didn’t play any team sports until I was 16. But when I did, nothing could keep me off the soccer field. I loved being on the team and the camaraderie that came with that. The thing I couldn’t stand, however, was being on the bench. Even when I was playing indoor soccer, with its fast changeovers and intensity, and my mind knew that it made sense to have someone else sub on – my coach would have to yell for me to come off the field.
Probably some of the same motivation to not be on the bench underlay my desire to go into general surgery. I loved the feeling of tangibly correcting pathology. Despite how exhausting surgical residency can be, the enjoyment of being in the thick of the action never left me and still excites when I’m on call now.
On March 17, however, things changed for us. As residents, we only came into the hospital if we were on call. Otherwise we were asked to stay home.
Suddenly, I felt like I was on the bench.
In soccer, there is a concept known as the “super-sub”. Some players seem to be able to make the most impact when pulled off the bench late in the game. One of the most famous super-subs in soccer is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Famously, in 1999 during the Champions League Final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, the Norwegian striker came off the bench to score the winner. He was introduced into the game when there were only 10 minutes left. Solskjaer repeatedly did this throughout his career.
One of the amazing things about the COVID crisis has been the emergence of so many “super-subs”. Around the world, healthcare workers have risen to the occasion to support their colleagues and take care of patients. The surgical residents at Columbia University as well as many other hospitals around the world have developed a surgical “SWAT” team. The SWAT team was available to put in lines for all critically ill patients. Physicians have volunteered to be redeployed, despite being at high risk of contracting COVID-19. An attending thoracic surgeon in Britain, Joel Dunning, volunteered to work as an ICU nurse. These groups and individuals have rightfully received recognition and accolades for rising to the challenge, along with the thousands of other frontline personnel who put their lives at risk to take care of COVID-19 patients.
What is much harder to appreciate is that some of the most important players in the fight against COVID-19 have been the millions of people who will not get the accolades. These are the millions who have heeded the calls for physical distancing and have stayed home: the parents who continue to work from home while still trying to educate their children, the small business owners who have had to lay off their employees, and the millions in our communities who remain isolated from those they love. Finally, there have been the scientists, researchers, and public health officials who continue to inspire, educate and support those on the front lines. In a time of much uncertainty and noise, clear, rational voices are perhaps the most important interventions we have against COVID-19.
My last day of residency is on May 19, 2020. I never expected it to end this way. The corridors of the Foothills Hospital in Calgary, usually continuously bustling, are silent and empty. For the many around the world who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, life will never be the same. But one thing that will remain constant are those who look for how they can serve, no matter how mundane that role might be. One of our senior surgeons developed symptoms consistent with COVID (he ultimately tested negative and recovered well). He wrote an email to our department, “I woke up Friday morning with a new cough. It is the kind of thing we would all ignore and keep working. Not now! It was surprisingly hard to turn my back on my responsibilities and leave…Perhaps now being a “hero” means going home.” Being on the bench is not the same as being on the sidelines. To be part of the team, we all have to play our roles.