Opinion: Why Grady doctor makes plea for us to stay home so she can go to work

A man walks a dog past graffiti with the writing, “Wash Your Hands, We’re In This Together,” on the Lower Newtownards Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday March 24, 2020. LIAM MCBURNEY / PA VIA AP
A man walks a dog past graffiti with the writing, “Wash Your Hands, We’re In This Together,” on the Lower Newtownards Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday March 24, 2020. LIAM MCBURNEY / PA VIA AP

Videos of doctors and other health care workers with tales of personal protective equipment shortages amid the continuing spread of COVID-19 are becoming as common as the coronavirus itself.

A good number of them have been encouraging, even funny.

Others are gut-wrenching.

If you happen to see Dr. Khadeja Johnson’s emotional Facebook video, pleading with us to stay home the other day, you know what I’m talking about. And while I appreciate moments of levity, I’ve found little to laugh about when it comes to the coronavirus.

As I write this, both rates of coronavirus infection and death among Americans continue to climb exponentially. There’s nothing funny about either of those facts or the people who might follow just because we can’t sit still for two weeks or however long it takes for this thing to peak and start to go down.

I mentioned Dr. Johnson.

She is an internal medicine doctor at Grady Hospital, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine and a single mother of a 14-year-old son. She’s also the daughter of 71-year-old and 68-year-old parents who in normal times she visits two to three times a week. Johnson hasn’t seen them in nearly four weeks for fear she could infect them. She and her son are practicing social distancing in their Brookhaven home for the same reason.

A girlfriend who was struggling to help her in-laws navigate the times suggested Johnson share with their Spelman College Mom Facebook group the same advice she’d given her.

“I’ll think about it,” she told her.

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Johnson works in two-week blocks, caring for patients and supervising medical school students, residents and interns. She wears gloves to examine patients and keeps her cellphone and pager in a plastic bag. She undresses in the garage when she arrives home, wipes down her badge and keys with disinfectant and showers and washes her hair the moment she goes inside.

This was her first weekend off. If anything, she wanted to forget the coronavirus but she couldn’t.

Dr. Khadeja Johnson is an internal medicine doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine. CONTRIBUTED
Dr. Khadeja Johnson is an internal medicine doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine. CONTRIBUTED

Sometime around 3 a.m. March 22, she woke up from a deep sleep, grabbed her cellphone and began scrolling through text messages.

One informed her of the death of a fellow Jack and Jill member in St. Louis, Missouri, who’d passed from the coronavirus. There was another about the 12-year-old girl fighting for her life at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, pictures of crowds socializing on the Atlanta Beltline and out watching the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

And perhaps worse, people lamenting having to cancel their hair and nail salon appointments.

Johnson decided she had no other choice but to make a video addressing the pandemic. After all, having “a positive meaningful impact in someone’s life” was why she decided to be a doctor in the first place.

“I waited until the sun came up, showered, and at around 9 a.m. sat down to write out what I wanted to say so I wouldn’t forget anything,” she said.

Johnson urged us in no uncertain terms to stay home, to buckle down for now.

“I see a lot of posts on Facebook still asking about traveling, getting on planes and going on vacation, whether you should have play dates, birthday parties, going to nail salons and getting your hair done and it’s starting to drive me crazy,” she said. “These things are not necessities. What they are doing is helping spread the virus.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She suggested we forgo getting our hair and nails done and our homes cleaned. If any of those things are regularly budgeted expenses and you’re still getting a paycheck, pay the service provider anyway, she said. It’s a good way to help them stay afloat.

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Cancel play dates, birthday parties, and other large celebrations, she told her listeners. Do not go to church or funerals. Use telemedicine and virtual doctor visits. If you have any, donate N95 masks to health care workers. They are badly needed. During her latest hospital rotation, Johnson said she’d worn the same mask for 14 days even though it’s recommended they use them only once.

“We’re scared for ourselves and our family,” she said, her voice shaking. “Please stay at home.”

Do not come to the hospital with mild COVID-19 symptoms, she continued. Seek medical attention only if you feel shortness of breath.

For more information, she provided the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's web address: cdc.gov/coronavirus.

Johnson cried recalling the conversations she has had to have with her son over the past weeks.

Their talks haven’t been about parties or vacation plans.

“It’s about what will happen to my son if I get the virus,” she said.

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We’ve seen photos of health care workers displaying signs that read: We stay here for you. Please stay home for us.

We’ve heard news stories of them getting sick and dying.

Johnson said it’s important for all of us to understand that health care workers are putting their lives on the line for us every day, but this is a new day. The fear they feel is new and it is real.

On a scale of 1 to 10, she said the fear level is an 8.

“I’m not debilitated by it, but I’m aware things are going to get bad real soon,” Johnson said. “I am my son’s only parent. I want to be here for my son. That’s the part that’s most frightening to me.”

The good news is the response to the video, which at last count had more than 39,000 views, has been positive.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people saying thank you, this has changed my behavior,” she said. “I showed it to my mom and dad, and they said, ‘I’m not going out anymore.’”

While washing our hands is critical, Johnson maintains social distancing is crucial to ending the spread of the coronavirus.

“I really just want people to stay home,” she said. “We have to be in this together.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.