In the weeks after Minnesota’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on March 6, Dr. Mohammed Imteyaz Hussain went to work at the emergency room at CentraCare’s hospital in Monticello and waited.
And he waited. And waited.
“This is the calm before the storm,” he said in mid-March. “When they start coming, it’s going to be bad.”
Traffic in his emergency room dipped to half as people largely avoided hospitals. They weren’t flooded with coronavirus cases, but patients still seemed on edge. There was an influx of anxiety or alcohol-related issues. A man came in with a bloody fractured finger as a result of his gun misfiring when he was cleaning it. Hussain joked: “Were you preparing for coronavirus?” In fact, the man was. He was teaching his wife and daughter how to shoot. Just in case.
Today, nearly three months after Minnesota’s first case, Hussain is still waiting for a surge that now more than ever he feels is inevitable.
His hospital is in Wright County, an exurban and rural area sandwiched between two of the biggest hot spots in the state. To the southeast is Hennepin County; with 6,918 cases and 534 deaths, it is by far the part of Minnesota most affected by the virus. To the northwest is Stearns County; with 1,923 cases (though only 12 deaths), it has the highest case count in the state outside the Twin Cities.
So far, Wright County has been relatively unscathed, as has Hussain’s 12-bed emergency room. There’s been 240 confirmed cases in the county, and only one death; less than a half-dozen COVID-19 positive cases have come through Hussain’s emergency room and been transferred to CentraCare’s main hospital in St. Cloud.
“We can’t become complacent,” Hussain said. “If a wave comes in one week or two weeks or three weeks, these two months have prepared us to handle it much better. The planning is all there now. We’ll be prepared. But we could get overwhelmed.”
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Hussain says calmness is in his DNA. If a patient is dying and there’s nothing more to be medically done, he will explain in a measured voice exactly what is happening. His gregarious wife is perpetually stunned at his lack of outward emotion in stressful moments.
When the coronavirus began sweeping America in March, a new and different feeling consumed the 52-year-old: anxiety. Hussain still had to go to work. But that put not just him at an elevated risk for infection but also his wife, two teenage kids and his aging parents. His mother has kidney failure, and his father is in remission for a rare form of bone cancer. His wife’s fears were twofold: convinced their family would get the virus, and worried the entire health care system would crash.
But even as the death toll and infection rates have grown in Minnesota, Hussain has returned to his normal, placid self. Hospitals, including his, are now better prepared. There’s better access to personal protective equipment at CentraCare Health’s critical access hospital in Monticello, and more negative-pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients, which help prevent infectious particles from escaping the room. The hospital typically has two ICU beds, but that has increased to four.
But Hussain’s calmness in the face of a pandemic isn’t just something he was born with. It also comes from witnessing the worst industrial disaster in human history.
Late at night on Dec. 2, 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, just 20 miles from where Hussain grew up, had a massive gas leak. Workers at the plant and nearby residents were overcome by tons of gas emitted into the air: coughing, suffocation, a scalding feeling in their lungs. By the next morning, thousands had died. In total, the disaster claimed nearly 4,000 lives and resulted in half a million injuries.
Hussain was in 10th grade and an aspiring doctor. He went to the closest hospital to help. It was overwhelming. The garden outside the hospital was filled with patients whose eyes were burning. Inside, corridors were packed. He had no personal protective equipment, but for days, he went person by person, wrote down names and symptoms and sent patients in the right direction.
His parents had chosen his career path. The Bhopal disaster confirmed it. And it led him to approach the pandemic of today with calm; people’s minds have been spinning, and his role goes beyond just diagnosing COVID-19. It’s providing comfort.
“That experience taught me humility,” Hussain said. “People are vulnerable, and so are you. The majority of people are going to be OK, but they’re afraid. Hysterical. Paranoid. You can’t just tell them, ‘You’ll be OK.’ You gotta give them answers.”
“It’s all about humility,” he continued. “The biggest country in the history of the world, and one small virus — it puts us on our knees.”
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During recent months, Hussain’s mind has frequently flashed back to 36 years ago. Both disasters were massive medical emergencies, though in completely opposite ways: one man-made, the other an inscrutable virus. One that happened in a flash, the other that Hussain compares to a termite slowly chewing away at a home.
Lately, life has felt more normal. The number of patients at the Monticello emergency room is approaching pre-pandemic numbers. Curbside testing has lowered the virus threat inside his emergency room. He obsessively wipes his computer and phone with disinfectants. Before every shift, his temperature is taken. After every shift, he showers before driving home. His ears hurt from constantly wearing a mask.
He’s concerned about the public health aspect of reopening the state. But he’s just as concerned about the economic impact — and the psychological impact — of staying closed. A recent e-mail from hospital administration announced an across-the-board pay cut for six months. Social isolation is taking a toll on his parents.
“Do we know that we’ll have more cases as more people go out more? Yes,” he said. “But new normal must come. We cannot stay with what we have. The pendulum must swing. We let the pendulum swing all the way to the left, and that was the right thing. But now we must let it come to a happy medium.”
In March, he said people were “literally freaking out” because nobody knew anything about this new virus.
In April, he said people have accepted the new reality that the virus was here and that testing wasn’t widely available: “Once you understand the feeling of helplessness, it is what it is, and you live with it.”
In May, with testing more widespread, many Minnesotans have become restless with the virtual lockdown, including his own family. On Sunday, he planned to celebrate the end of Ramadan with an Eid barbecue at his house, and his sister’s family and their parents planned to attend.
In his emergency room, he is still waiting. But it’s no longer a worried waiting. He jokes he’s developed an immunity to coronavirus anxiety. Now, it’s a waiting of acceptance: that more infections and deaths will indeed come, but that the months of anticipation mean he’ll be ready when they do.