Photo courtesy Weill Cornell Medicine
Mar 26, 2021
‘The sun will shine again’: Brooklyn doc (and Covid survivor) reflects on the past year
Why this New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital senior internist endured the worst of Covid—and is still full of hope
Infectiousness is not really an attribute you want in a doctor. Except when it comes to optimism, in which case Parag Mehta gets a pass.
As senior vice chair of the department of medicine at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, Mehta has been on the Covid frontlines for the past year now. But his battle with the virus took on a personal dimension when he and several members of his family contracted the illness, which would ultimately claim the life of his mother-in-law.
As the one-year anniversary of New York’s Covid lockdown ticked by, Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Dr. Mehta about fighting through, burnout, loss and retaining hope.
This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was your life a year ago when Covid arrived here?
So, exactly one year ago, we were dealing with a disease which was completely unknown. You could see fear in the eyes of my residents, and patients who were getting admitted. There was this anxiety. My role at that time as acting chair was to make sure that I bring the positivity. We try to find out what is going on, educate everyone about it, and adapt very quickly. Agility was the key.
You yourself were diagnosed a year ago. Talk about that experience.
It was a journey which I will never forget. I did quarantine myself, so I got my daughter’s room in the basement. It has a window, but I was completely isolated. My daughters and my wife kept me upbeat. I used to write letters to my wife, because I was in India when we were engaged. She had saved all those letters 25 years ago. She would pass one letter from the old time and she would write a new letter to me. So that was really uplifting.
What was going through your mind as both a practitioner and a patient?
You think about everything possible: “Hey, am I going to survive or not? What should I be doing?” I thought about and reflected on my life. What I saw was that all throughout my life everyone who’s ever come in my contact has helped me, and I have returned the same thing. I always help people. Being a physician, I thought that I had done enough good deeds—maybe that will help me and I will survive. So I stayed positive.
And you got better.
Eventually. My fever broke on the 14th day. So until that time, it was tough. The bigger issue that was happening was that my wife got sick, and then my mother-in-law. She had to be taken to the hospital, then had to come back, and then later on my two daughters got sick. It was tormenting. Spirituality, mindfulness—a lot of things helped me. Community was unbelievable, amazing. Eventually my mother in law had to be readmitted, and she never came back.
Did being a doctor alleviate or exacerbate your anxiety?
As a physician, when I was reading all these stories, I knew that anything could happen to me. I was just prepared for that. My question was: have I done something good? When the answer came back, yes, I said, Whatever comes, I’ll take it.
Once you were feeling better, what was the next challenge?
The wellness of the physicians. We started this peer-to-peer program and campaign: that it is okay to feel not okay. There was a significant stress workload, lots of people have lost their loved ones. Imagine that a patient is in the hospital, and no family members can visit them. We as physicians get involved with the patients. Some people used to call that the “second victim.” So when something happens, you feel helpless. You want to save somebody’s life and somebody you cannot save—it’s so deeply touching and hurting. Then we all know that the next biggest challenge is the vaccine.
You got the vaccine. How did that feel, even after having had the virus?
It was a miracle. It’s a scientific marvel. It’s a kind of God’s gift. I took it for many reasons, including for my safety, my patients’ safety, as well as to convince others. This is the vaccine which is going to help us to overcome this crisis.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
I do believe that there’s always blue sky, no matter how much thunderstorms or how much clouds cover it. It will go away and you will see that blue sky again. The sun will shine again. I guarantee you. But more than that, I believe that we are the ones who can end this pandemic. We should be stronger and smarter. If we follow the simple rule of wearing masks and social distancing, and if we take vaccines enough to where we develop herd immunity, I am optimistic that we should be able to come out of it very soon.
What about Brooklyn in particular? How can we as a borough stay healthy?
Brooklyn is a unique borough and we have fought many wars. So I’m sure that Brooklynites are smart enough that they can fight this war also. No question about it—Brooklyn will come out of it! As a Covid survivor and as a person who has lost some loved ones, I will urge everyone to wear masks, keep social distancing, and vaccinate yourself. Let’s reimagine and rebuild Brooklyn with kindness, compassion, and equality, those are the best things to make everyone healthy. And healthcare for all!
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