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My grandfather was my hero

Zaki Y. Azam, a first-year medical intern, with

Zaki Y. Azam, a first-year medical intern, with his grandfather, Mohammad Khan. Mr. Khan passed away from COVID-19 as his grandson tried to help him. Credit: Zaki Y. Azam

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"CAC 8th floor.” “Rapid response 4th floor.” The voice that echoes in my head is the voice that blares overhead every few seconds.

I am a first-year medical resident in New York City, and the toll placed on interns like me is immeasurable. My attending physician reminds me of someone commanding a battlefield. I’m surrounded by allied residents (doctors with different specialties but deployed to my unit), and coalition doctors (students who graduated early to help). Medicine has been replaced by wartime rhetoric. Unlike war, however, none of us ever expected to lose our lives.

Being on the front lines of a pandemic is surreal, and scary. I was scared of COVID-19 cases with which I came in contact, scared that my mask wasn’t fitting properly, and scared to mistakenly touch my face with dirty gloves. My face hurt from wearing a mask 13 hours a day; my head throbbed from trying to find a mask in the chaos of people frantically searching for them.

As the death toll began to spike in New York City, I started taking a few seconds out of my day to hold my patients’ hands as they neared death. I closed my eyes and stood in silence in each patient’s remembrance. Tomorrow is never promised.

Then, I began to hear my 84-year-old grandfather, Mohammad Khan, with whom I lived, coughing. “What’s his O2 saturation?” “How’s his breathing?”  These are questions I’d asked about strangers just weeks ago. Now, I asked them about my grandfather, as I brought him to Northwell Health Plainview Hospital on April 10.

Day after day for two weeks, I saw my grandfather via FaceTime. Truthfully, I felt blessed to be able to see him at all. It was our lifeline as he fought the coronavirus.

One of the calls doctors dread making is to tell a family member a loved one is dying. That was the call I received when my grandfather suddenly deteriorated. We grow accustomed to making the call as clinicians, but we never expect to get it ourselves.

I rushed to the hospital. I felt for his pulse. Slow but faint. As a doctor, you become desensitized over time. You frantically think of the next steps that will save a body’s life, until that body is someone you know. As a physician I took a pause, but as a grandson, I was overcome with emotion.

I started crying, calling his name, nudging him to wake up, just like I did on early Sunday mornings to ask him to come play outside. At that moment, I felt that I was failing as a doctor: I failed to keep him alive.

“Time of death, 3:12 p.m. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

During this time of pandemic, death has no dignity. Patients are not allowed to have visitors and often die scared. No matter which side of the “I’m sorry for your loss” you’re on, you can’t help but feel helpless. Someone deteriorates, someone dies, and on you go to try to save the next life. 

A few days later, I prepared to head to work. I thought about all the COVID-19 patients I’d treated before I knew that my grandfather would be one. As I got to work around 7 p.m., I heard people cheering outside. But at that moment, I was no hero. I had just lost a battle. And I was returning to the battleground that had altered my family forever.

This pandemic has revealed the frailty of the health care system in our nation. Many of our leaders refuse to support policies such as a health care system that ensures equal access to all that lead to better health outcomes. The result is hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, a system in which dying patients ask their doctors how much they will have to pay to get treated. 

No one wants to be a hero right now. Everyone just wants to live to see another day.

Zaki Y. Azam of Jericho is a first-year internal medicine resident. This piece is excerpted from an essay published at 

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