Ob/Gyn Dispatches During COVID-19: Helai Hesham, MD

April 13, 2020

Each day during the COVID-19 crisis, we'll share an update from a member of our team in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Today's note is from Helai Hesham, MD, a female pelvic medicine and urogynecology specialist and an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYP/CUIMC.


Helai Hesham, MD, second from right in pink, with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Helai Hesham, MD, second from right in pink, with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan.

I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan during the years of the Soviet Invasion. On the night of my birth, my country was under strict curfew. Social distancing was a norm - not for fear of a viral illness, but of gunfire and overhead bombings. My father was what we would consider an "essential worker" - a trauma surgeon who would rarely leave the hospital during the war. My mother, a practicing Ob/Gyn, always remarks how lucky she was that as a physician she was able to leave the house during curfew to go to the hospital for my birth. I was premature, and at nearly 4 lbs, a home delivery alone would not have been ideal. 

Many years have passed since those curfew-ridden nights in Kabul and now I'm a gynecologist here at Columbia, practicing a different sort of social distancing. These days, I often think of our patients waiting in their homes, trying to figure out when to emerge from their isolation to come seek our help. At times I imagine my mother in their place, in an apartment in Washington Heights, wondering if the contractions she was experiencing weeks too early were a false alarm, or warranted for her to risk her life and brave the outdoors. What is poignantly different for our patients, though, is that even in their isolation, they are not alone. 

In the past month, many things have changed. We stand six feet apart, hugs and handshakes are bygones, faces are covered with masks, and yet what stands within this newfound physical distance are pillars of comraderie, love and support. I see my colleagues supporting their patients and coworkers in unparalleled ways. Whether it be volunteering for redeployment to help decrease the pressure and strain on our most vulnerable colleagues, mastering telehealth so our patients are never alone, or innovating new PPE to protect our own health - we are all working together. None of us are alone. None of our patients are alone.

This comraderie is a theme I then see at home when I open my windows at 7 p.m. and hear my neighbors pay salute to all the hands and hearts that are helping day in and out. It then continues when I end every night by talking to my family, who are scattered along the eastern seaboard. We all check in to make sure everyone is safe and healthy. As our lives have progressed in the US, all of my siblings have become physicians here. We all continue to try to coerce my father, the head of the ICU of his hospital, to take on less clinical duties as he is over 70 years old. We make sure my sister, the ENT, has appropriate PPE for her procedures. And we joke whether my brother, the ortho, has put in any screws to secure the ET tubes that he is now using to intubate for his shifts in the ER. 

We laugh, we smile, we worry - but never alone. 

In this moment of solidarity throughout NYC and the country, we are all equalized, we all care together. While there are many parts of this pandemic that I wish will come to an end soon, this community that we are building will live on.

Helai Hesham, MD