Birth, death, and everything in between. Over the past few months, Dr. Peter Lee has experienced it all.
As an attending physician and the associate director of Emergency Medicine at RWJBarnabas Health’s Jersey City Medical Center, Dr. Lee has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.
During the peak of the pandemic, Dr. Lee recalls holding the hand of a man he had met 10 minutes earlier who was dying from COVID-19 complications — as his family said their final goodbyes through FaceTime on an iPad. “It was like they were holding his hand through me,” he said.
Then, in August, he witnessed the birth of his third child — a healthy, 7-pound, 9-ounce boy.
In between, he treated countless patients suffering from the ravages of COVID-19. He helped save many lives and saw too many deaths.
He also witnessed what happens when people are confronted with an unprecedented health crisis. He saw his co-workers come together as a team. He saw his community unite in support of the hospital’s hard-working healthcare heroes.
“There has been so much negativity and so much unforeseen death, and just sadness,” Dr. Lee said. “Then, having your son born during this time is what life is all about. It’s about taking opportunities to appreciate and enjoy what’s around you and focus on what’s important —cherishing life.”
Being an emergency physician is all Dr. Lee ever wanted to be. After graduating from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Lee did his residency at Morristown Medical Center, then started working as an attending at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
Dr. Lee jumped at the opportunity to work in a big city emergency department at JCMC. But nobody could have predicted what 2020 would bring.
It started in late February. Patients with fevers and coughs. Some had trouble breathing. Death came quickly.
“We had really little information,” Dr. Lee said. “It was a very trying time. We were scared. Our job was to take care of patients, but we didn’t know what we were dealing with.”
The staff in the emergency department came together like never before. It wasn’t just direct clinical staff such as doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and physician assistants rising to the occasion — it was ancillary staff that included ER techs, unit clerks and environmental services personnel.
“It was a whole team effort that allowed us to treat so many sick people and save so many lives,” Dr. Lee said.
The outpouring of support from the community also helped. There were daily donations of food and personal protective equipment. Residents who lived in the vicinity of the hospital would bang pots and pans and ring bells during shift changes.
“Those acts of kindness gave us the mental push we needed to leave our families and go treat our patients,” Dr. Lee said.
No one wants to live through a pandemic like this again, especially those who have been fighting it on the front lines. But Dr. Lee said the staff at JCMC is prepared for whatever may come.
“No matter what the next few months bring,” Dr. Lee said, “We are here, and we are ready to care for those in our community who are sick and need our help.”