This is the most complimentary article about an Eph in a major publication in years.
The Pandemic’s Most Powerful Writer Is a Surgeon
Dr. Craig Smith started writing a daily update to his colleagues. They’re no longer his only readers. His emails have become essential dispatches from the front lines.
Dr. Craig Smith sits down at his computer each day in a hospital under siege and starts typing.
His note to the Columbia University department of surgery on the evening of March 20 began with the latest, grimmest statistics from the coronavirus pandemic: the positive tests, the disappearing beds, masks and ventilators, the curve too stubborn to bend. It was an email that would’ve been crushing if he’d stopped there. He didn’t.
“So what can we do?” Smith continued. “Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”
That last paragraph about a dog sled racing to beat another epidemic nearly a century ago is the reason his colleagues are no longer his only readers. The daily notes of this 71-year-old surgeon, which are now published on Columbia’s website and shared widely on social media, have become essential dispatches for many people in search of leadership, courage and maybe even a pep talk. Dr. Smith’s emails are Winston Churchill’s radio speeches of this war.
Read the whole thing. More on Balto.
Balto (1919 – March 14, 1933) was a Siberian Husky and sled dog who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome, in which diphtheria antitoxin was transported from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nenana, Alaska, by train and then to Nome by dog sled to combat an outbreak of the disease.
Do we get to credit Smith’s Williams education for such a perfect metaphor? Back to the article.
Smith is an elegant, almost poetic writer. The chairman of the department balances sobering data with a deft literary touch, quoting sources as disparate as John Wooden and Emily Dickinson. When he delivered the presidential address for the American Association for Thoracic Surgery in 2012, he opened and closed his lecture with meditations on a Yeats poem.
In response to an interview request, he replied: “I’d rather let the written messages to my colleagues speak for themselves.”
The grandson of two physicians, Smith was a self-described lackluster student, so convinced that he was the “last student to be accepted” in his Williams College class that he didn’t buy a school T-shirt until he survived the first semester, according to a 2015 article in The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.
EphBog readers first met Smith 16 years ago when he operated on former President Clinton.
You don’t have to be a literary critic to appreciate his style. But it doesn’t hurt if you happen to be one.
Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt says Smith’s notes have a “certain dark fascination” that reminds him of “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe, and Columbia scholar Andrew Delbanco says his writing is so evocative that he feels as if he knows him through reading him.
“Candid, clear, concrete, his sentences cut straight to the heart of the matter: the staggering scale of the emergency and the equally staggering courage of those who are rising to meet it,” Delbanco wrote in an email. “Straight talk has been as scarce as masks and ventilators lately, but Dr. Smith talks straight.”
Smith writes like a bartender. For every shot, there’s a chaser. He ended his note on Sunday, when hundreds in New York had died of this new disease, by reflecting on the explorers who traversed Africa in the 1800s and lost half of their team over the course of the journey.
“They managed to bring 108 souls home,” Smith wrote. “It would have been 105, except that 3 children were born on the journey and survived to the end.”
Once again he’d found hope in despair.
“Life,” Dr. Smith wrote, “finds a way.”
Let us pray it does.