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Everyday heroes: three doctors on the front lines of coronavirus

Isolating from family in a chilly trailer. Risking infection to treat incarcerated people. Leaving no stone unturned in the desperate search for personal protective gear.

When the Forward asked readers to share stories of people doing extraordinary things in this extraordinary time, those are just some of the stories we heard.

Below are three profiles of everyday heroes who responded with bravery and generosity when coronavirus turned their workplaces into a battleground. If you know someone acting heroically right now, let us know — we’ll be adding to the collection in the coming days.

She’s finding masks in unexpected places

Dr. Bess Stillman.

Dr. Bess Stillman. Image by Courtesy of Jake Seliger

Name: Dr. Bess Stillman, Emergency Room physician at Brookdale Hospital

What she’s doing: Before coronavirus hit, Bess Stillman had plenty of experience in the emergency room — but now, she’s found that treating patients is only one of her responsibilities. She knew that crowded emergency rooms, where patients come seeking help and safety, are actually very unsafe environments when a contagious respiratory disease is making the rounds. So she’s helping Brookdale Hospital develop a telehealth system that will reduce crowding and lower the risk of transmission for patients and those who care for them. Meanwhile, Stillman and her coworkers had to worry about protecting their own health as the hospital’s stores of personal protective gear dwindled. Unable to count on a steady supply of masks and gloves at work, Stillman turned to her personal network for help.

Where she’s getting them: Donations of personal protective gear have flowed in from unexpected sources, said Stillman’s partner, Jake Seliger. Several of the couple’s friends regularly attend the Burning Man music festival in Nevada, where concert-goers often wear masks to protect themselves from desert dust. Now, their unused N95 masks are protecting Stillman and her coworkers as they fight coronavirus on the front lines. Other friends in the hair and makeup industry contributed boxes of nitrile gloves which they use in their own group.

While it’s heartwarming to receive support from one’s friends, Seliger said that for Stillman, the lack of adequate protective gear and the additional work necessary to supply it is the most stressful part of being a doctor during the pandemic.

“It’s basically like having two jobs at the same time,” he said.

She can’t smell or taste, but she’s still treating patients on Rikers Island

Name: Dr. Kate Baron, family physician at Rikers Island Correctional Facility

Baron, right, wearing personal protective gear.

Baron, right, wearing personal protective gear. Image by Courtesy of Liz Baron

Who she is: When Baron began a new job caring for incarcerated people in New York City’s main prison complex, no one was surprised. She was living out the principles of “tikkun olam,” the Jewish concept of repairing the world through good deeds, that she’d learned from her parents and the synagogue she’d attended as a child, said family friend Tina Wasserman. Providing quality medical care within the strict confines of a prison is difficult under any circumstances. “The doctors are really at the mercy of the prison system,” said Baron’s mother, Liz Baron. And that was before the pandemic hit.

What she’s doing: With over 200 confirmed cases of coronavirus at Rikers Island as of April 1, the need for medical care is only growing. Baron is working to test and isolate incarcerated people, but “she’s experiencing a tremendous amount of frustration,” her mother said, because of the prison’s inability to effectively isolate patients. For example, patients waiting for test results are sometimes placed in an area with infected people, increasing their chances of contracting coronavirus if they don’t already have it. Alongside one other doctor, Baron is monitoring the care of 200 patients.

In the past week, Baron has lost her sense of taste and smell, symptoms associated with a mild case of coronavirus. But despite worries about her own health, she’s still going to work and caring for patients.

“This is really a calling for her,” said her mother. “She wouldn’t think of not being there, even though it’s so difficult.”

He’s chronicling coronavirus from the front lines

Name: Dr. Steve Zlotowski, Emergency Medicine Physician, Enloe Medical Center

What he’s doing: On March 23, Dr. Zlotowski posted on Facebook for the first time in over a year, recording a video about the importance of social distancing from the trailer where he was isolating from family while treating coronavirus patients. He was more successful than he imagined: in a few days, the video had gone viral, even appearing on the local news.

Since then, he’s posted daily updates after each exhausting shift at the hospital. Zlotowski’s chronicles show readers how healthcare workers are adapting on a granular level: he describes replacing cloth privacy curtains with construction paper in order to curb transmission and explains how nurses are taking on new duties even as their usual ones grow more time-consuming.

But he’s also ruminated on the connection between the pandemic and his Jewish heritage. He discusses drawing inspiration from his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose bravery and determination he interpreted as coldness while she was alive. And he records conversations with his mother, a child Holocaust survivor for whom this is only the most recent episode of sheltering at home.

What they’re saying: Rabbi Matt Friedman, Zlowtowski’s former rabbi, said he was amazed to see a doctor sharing his thoughts so openly on social media. But he said Zlowtowski’s behavior now is a reflection of his open-minded character and genuine interest in other people’s lives. “He’s very much a deep thinker but he’s not wrapped up in his head or in himself,” Friedman said. “He’s very much a people person.”

Inspired? Read the first in our series of articles on everyday heroes here.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

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