It’s 3 a.m. Thursday, two nights after Superstorm Sandy barreled into Manhattan, and I’m standing in the ornate elevator lobby of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. The multi-colored marble floor is cold, and from the walls, oil portraits of the hospital’s billionaire donors stare down. I don’t know whether those portraits have ever seen their grand foyer quite like this: A dozen stretchers are parked along one wall, and folding dividers have sectioned off what we are generously calling “rooms.”
Phones ring and radios beep in the semi-darkness of the massive vestibule. As laryngitis clogs my throat, I repeat myself three times before a nurse hears my instructions. Another nurse scribbles notes on paper. I bring patients from corridors, ambulance bays, and nooks normally used for storage. For the number of patients stacked into the hospital, things are surprisingly calm. Every patient has a nurse, every area has a doctor, and no one is running, yelling, or bleeding excessively.
While I’m there, the activity doesn’t die down. Ambulance after ambulance brings patients from other hospitals with no power or generators that have died or floors that have become flooded. EMTs carry in hypothermic shut-ins who have been hauled down out of unheated fifth-floor walk-ups. Family members come through our doors with grandparents dependent on supplemental oxygen that is running out. It’s rumored we have hundreds of extra patients. My favorite resident whisks by but recognizes me and stops long enough to say hi and thank me for being there in the middle of the night to volunteer, even though I’m on leave and am sick myself. The staff is tired, and coffee no longer keeps the dark circles from encroaching on their faces.
Our work is not glamorous or flashy, but it needs to be done. A hurricane hits, a hospital pulls together. Earlier that evening, as I walked to the hospital in the gusting wind and rain, I’m on the phone with my dad, who reminded me, “Taryn, you’re a doctor. This is what you do.”
He’s right. I am going to be a doctor. This is where God has called me, and I’ve sensed that calling my entire life. God has instilled in me a passion for medical disaster relief, whether it is responding to the aftermath of a hurricane in New York or a tsunami in Samoa, or assisting torture survivors—this is who I have been created to be in my deepest core.
Not only am I going to be a doctor, I’m going to be one of these doctors—the ones on this night who are taking care of elderly women with bladder infections, young men with appendicitis, teenagers who drank contaminated water, mothers who had the bad timing to go into labor while the island is being pummeled by Sandy. These doctors also go where they are needed, even if it’s just to move gurneys, take vital signs, or help a nurse remember which patient is behind which divider. Sure, there are moments of excitement, when an ambulance calls ahead with a trauma or a heart attack victim walks through our doors. But that’s not the work that’s mostly being done tonight. Tonight is not a movie set or the plot of a novel or the scene in a popular television show. Instead, it’s careful planning, dedicated workers, elbow grease, ingenuity, flexibility, and persistence.
While I’m here, my roommate is volunteering overnight at the college where we normally have church services, because it’s been turned into an evacuation center. A university classmate has been working at a shelter in a heavily damaged area all week without a break. A sister in Christ is helping in lower Manhattan, aka “The Dark Zone,” passing out clean water and packaged meals to long lines of people without power. Someone asks me why all of us are doing this and I tell him, “Because we’re the church. We’re followers of Christ, doing His work. This is how we live our faith.”
The other things I need to do—they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Being there when it’s inconvenient, losing sleep for days on end, going home to my tiny apartment that’s packed with refugee friends, staying past the end of my scheduled shift, and being willing to do menial tasks even after seven-and-a half years of education under my belt—to find a blanket, clean an adult diaper, or change a bed—is what matters. This is being the body of Christ. This is being the living church. This is why God created me and how I become His hands and feet. I’m (almost) a doctor and this is what I do.