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Working at the medical front

Jonathan Davis '05 waves to four of his five children, Jeremiah, Luke, Cheyenne and Caleb, as he leaves to work in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Nicole Davis '05.

In April, Ben Daxon ’05 had jumped fully into the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, where life had been upended, when he wrote a hopeful post on his Facebook page:

“Day one is done. I’ll be on nights (most likely) for the rest of my time.

Every time someone is extubated (when a breathing tube is taken out and patients breathe without a ventilator) the hospital plays the Rocky theme song over the entire speaker system. It’s encouraging. It’s fun. It lets everyone know of a “win.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen much.

It’s a sad place. The sense of futility is everywhere. Patients are alone and not able to see their family, and vice versa. Most know there is a good chance they will die; at least, if they’re awake enough to realize what’s going on. The health care workers also know their patients will likely die. But we try. We must. Because every now and then we get to hear the Rocky theme song.”

A physician in full personal protective gear: face shield, mask gown and gloves, in a hospital.
Ben Daxon ’05, a critical care medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, during a shift at a New York City hospital where he volunteered to work at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Daxon, an Army veteran and staff physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, specializes in critical care and anesthesia. When COVID-19 began its path across the world, Daxon found out that his friend, fellow Furman alumnus and fellow physician, Jonathan Davis ’05, had volunteered to help in New York City.

“At the time, I was working in what we call a tele-ICU,” Daxon says, referring to a Mayo Clinic service that provides expertise to smaller hospitals. Davis, an emergency department physician in Augusta, Georgia, called in from New York, where he had responded to a plea for volunteers.

Both doctors had observed the impact from the novel coronavirus 2 on hospitals across the country as visits and procedures were postponed and even emergency care needs reduced, even as some facilities were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. But the situation in America’s largest city was different.

“The questions he had, the stories he had, the situation he described was far worse than anything I had read in the news. I became acutely aware of how ignorant I was that things had gotten so bad in New York City,” Daxon says.

Davis says his decision to voluntarily work on the front line of the pandemic “felt pretty natural,” like someone “who enlists in the Army when he sees his country going off to fight in a war that he believes in. I’ve been trained to ease suffering and heal disease as best as I am able, or to contribute to that, and I see a lot of patients suffering and dying.”

He says his faith as a Christian compels him “to no longer live for myself,” and the sacrifices his wife Nicole ’05 makes to care for their five children are critical to his ability to volunteer.

Before his first night shift in a week of service, Davis was given a tour of the New York. He saw dedicated health care providers who were exhausted and overwhelmed.

“That’s when it hit me,” he says. “I walked through the emergency room and there were ventilated patients all around.”

As Davis plunged into the unknown of serving in a pandemic hot spot, his stories stirred Daxon. He and his wife Amanda, who have three children, talked about the decision to go for a day or two.

“Forty years from now, when our grandkids say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, you were a critical care doc at Mayo, what did you do during COVID-19?’ I don’t want to say I sat around and watched my friends get furloughed,” Daxon says. He and his wife felt they could handle the stress because of his deployment while in the military. “We knew what it meant for me to leave. I was in a unique position to go out there and help.”

Both Davis and Daxon spent about a week in New York City, but at different hospitals. We’re not naming either location out of respect for the staff and patients. Daxon found catharsis in writing about his experience on Facebook, posting each day about some of his experiences. He says Davis had prepared him to see a virus that was wreaking havoc on its victims.

“These patients were almost uniformly, horrifically sick, needing tons of interventions, tons of medicines,” Daxon says. “The pathology was end stage. It was a lot to take in. Usually, when you run an ICU, you’ve got a smattering of patients all across the spectrum – some really sick, some not so sick, some you know are going to be there for a week or two, some you’re going to discharge the next day.” In New York, he says, “everybody was on death’s door.”

Anyone who wants to help can do something, Daxon says. Health care professionals of any specialty can be useful in hot spots. Non-medical professionals can help by practicing social distancing to flatten the curve and to, as he hashtags his Facebook posts, #holdtheline. He encourages friends and family to be there for nurses, doctors and others who will need help processing their own trauma once this is over.

“There is a lot of death and a lot of suffering,” he says. “It’s hard to slog away at the task before you and not have it take its toll. In the coming weeks and months, for non-medical people, be ready to give the support, the crying shoulder and whatever needs to be for those who have been in the thick of the darkness, struggling to figure out what to make of all their emotions and experiences.”

Daxon shared this post after his first night shift, exhausted but still hopeful:

“Night one is in the books.

By the morning no one was extubated, but everyone was the same or better than when I came on. That’s a win in any intensivist’s book. I also got to work with a group of dedicated and compassionate people. Even though everyone on my team was out of their usual role, exhausted, and stressed, I never once heard a complaint or saw anything less than full devotion to the patients. And just for perspective, the ER doc has literally worked the last 19 nights in a row. She has seen a lot of death and dysfunction. I don’t know how she still keeps her head about her. It’s really, really impressive.

Hopefully we keep the wins coming, but I’m expecting some loses soon. For now: I’m off to shower, disinfect my room, replenish my Purell supplies, and take my nap. I start again at 7:00.

Thank you all for your prayers and encouraging words. And if you want to help: get a charity started to fund a food delivery truck to a hospital. I can’t tell you how much it helps to have a good, surprise meal.

Ever forward. Ever hopeful. #Holdtheline”

Words of inspiration are written on small cardboard signs lined up along a window sill.
Words of inspiration in the New York City hospital where Ben Daxon ’05 worked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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