THE COVID DOCTOR IS IN … THE CAMPAIGN— The pandemic has turned the intensive-care unit doctor into a cultural superstar on the order of Peloton and Zoom. ICU docs are everywhere: in your Twitter feed, on your cable news channel, on your op-ed page. They’re saving lives, sure, but they’re also a new brand of public intellectual — and political candidate.
There’s even one running for governor of Tennessee. Nightly editor Chris Suellentrop talked to Jason Martin, a 46-year-old critical care doctor from Nashville who’s never run for public office before, last month about his quest to win the Democratic nomination this summer in the party’s long-shot bid to unseat the incumbent Republican, Bill Lee.This conversation has been edited.
Do you agree that the pandemic has changed the perception of the ICU doctor in our society?
I joke with my friends that this is an opportunity for me to get involved, because no one is ever going to care what a pulmonologist/critical care doctor thinks in a year or two. There’s some credit here that we can spend. So I think that’s totally true.
I lost my dad in an ICU in 2014. That was a life-changing, and career-changing, experience for me. Being on the other side allows you to know what empathy means. The right answer is not always clear. You have to try different things. You have to listen to people. You have to put together a plan and a collaborative group.
Those are skills that translate directly to government. People ask me all the time: “You’re not a chief executive. You don’t have business experience. What makes you think you can jump into being governor?” I tell people: Government is not a business. Government exists to solve big problems that we can’t solve on our own. And that’s exactly what I do in the ICU every single day.
What was the start of the pandemic like for you?
For seven, eight weeks, I was completely separated from my family. We were hit very early on with a nursing home outbreak. So in like three days time, we got 100 octogenarians, basically, admitted to our hospital. And it’s a 100-bed hospital. We were overwhelmed at the outset.
This was the first time since training, since I was an intern, that I walked into the building and everything looked unfamiliar.
How does that compare to how the pandemic feels right now?
We are way understaffed. We can’t hire or keep nurses. And it’s not the administration’s fault. It’s a national problem. We’ve got three dozen nurses out with Covid, currently, because it’s so rampant in our community.
In mid-January, we were down to one ventilator in the hospital. We’ve got a contingency plan. The state will bring us more ventilators. It’s not like someone’s going to go without a ventilator. But that’s where we were. Our supply of 18 ventilators for an 18-bed ICU was down to one. And the curve and tendency was still straight up.
And all this is happening in the setting of nobody caring anymore. I don’t mean for me. I feel this, too. People are fatigued. They’re over it.
In the improbable circumstance that you become the governor of Tennessee, what policies would you adopt to manage that tension, that there’s an ongoing health care crisis at the same time that people are really tired of the pandemic and want things to be normal again?
I think there needs to be someone who is not actively working against us. What we were feeling was never matched by our governor. I think school districts should have some local control. If you feel like masks are necessary in your schools to keep your students and your kids safe, the governor should not override that with an executive order, which is what happened here. I would not threaten to defund the Department of Health for vaccine outreach to minors. Getting people vaccinated is the way we reduce severe and life-threatening disease.
I tell people all the time that freedom without responsibility is not liberty. It’s adolescence. And that’s what we’re dealing with right now in state government.