Myron Rolle has a new opponent.
You might remember the former safety from his days breaking up passes at Florida State or delivering hits in the NFL. But these days, he’s defending something else. Rolle, a third-year neurosurgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, is now one of the doctors treating victims of coronavirus.
"When there’s something we weren’t prepared for on the football field, you have to be able to use your mind, be creative, communicate, get lined up and get ready to do the play, get ready to execute,” Rolle said. "This is analogous to that; it’s exactly what we’re doing here and everyone has sort of taken that mind-set, which has been helpful.”
The audible, to extend the metaphor, came three weeks ago when Mass. General’s neurosurgery floor was transformed into a COVID-19 ward. Rolle’s duties shifted from his normal neurosurgery cases to fighting the virus.
Soon Rolle will start working in the hospital’s “surge clinic,” a kind of hospital-within-a-hospital where some residents have been asked to join other doctors and infectious disease specialists treating people coming in off the street.
“That’s when I think you’ll see our days being consumed by this,” Rolle said. “It makes sense. We are trained to be medical doctors first and if you have to put neurosurgery aside to deal with the most vulnerable and susceptible patients, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Rolle grew up with dueling ambitions. He had two boyhood idols: Deion Sanders and Dr. Ben Carson, a groundbreaking neurosurgeon before he entered politics.
Rolle was a five-star recruit and a Freshman All-American at FSU and, his junior year, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship — he’d flown directly to join the Seminoles for a game at Maryland the same day as his final interview. Rolle spent a year at Oxford University getting a master’s degree in medical anthropology, then declared for the draft in 2010.
He was selected by the Titans in the sixth round and went to Nashville to fulfill his NFL dreams, carrying the goal of medical school with him the whole time.
“You had a guy that was doing football by day and continuing to study with his humongous text books that he has in his apartment by night, making sure to stay up with everything that he was doing,” said Jason McCourty, the Patriots cornerback who is Rolle’s friend and former Titans teammate. "I just remember always talking to him and joking around, ‘You always are going to have my vote,’ whenever he decided to run for President. He just has that personality.”
Rolle played two years for the Titans and spent a training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers before going back to FSU for medical school in 2013. He graduated, matched at Mass. General and began his neurosurgery residency in 2017.
He’ll go back to his speciality once this is over, but little in the hospital is normal right now.
Though beds are filling, the hallways are bare because no visitors or non-essential workers are allowed inside. Operating rooms lack their typical buzz, those that haven’t been converted into ICU bed space, that is. Doctors normally do rounds in groups of six, seven, or eight, but now only one person is entering a patient’s room at a time, to reduce exposure.
The start of his shift is like going through airport security. When the doors open, Rolle opens up his phone to a form that asks him to record any muscle aches, new loss of smell or shortness of breath. If he has no symptoms, he shows his completed form to a member of hospital security and is cleared to go to work.
He then gets in line for protective gear. Mass. General requires every doctor at work to wear a mask, but all masks have been collected and put in a central location to conserve resources. Normally, they’d be on shelves and in one of the many supply closets.
In normal times, the majority of neurosurgery cases are elective. Removing a brain tumor might not seem like a choice, but costs and benefits are always weighed, as they are with degenerative spine issues and all the cases Rolle normally sees. Even these major procedures, as long as it’s safe to wait, have been postponed.
So, the neurosurgery department is only seeing emergency cases, and will soon see its operating rooms converted to ICU bed space. The majority of Rolle’s shifts are already spent treating COVID-19 patients, or figuring out who exactly those patients are.
That’s one of the major challenges Rolle hasn’t heard brought up much but says doctors are spending a lot of energy dealing with. Last time he checked, Rolle said Mass. General had fewer than 100 COVID-19 cases, but every patient who comes in with symptoms of the virus has to be treated as a possible threat to transmit. There’s a race against time to figure out who really needs hospital bed space and who should go home quickly enough to avoid contracting COVID-19 just by being in a hospital.
"It could be seasonal allergies, it could be pneumonia, it could be the common cold, it could be flu,” Rolle said. "And so it takes tests and lab work and resources and scans to parse out if this is COVID-19 or if this is something else.”
‘The sports world, the administrators and the leagues, they need to place a high premium on the health of America, the health of the world and certainly this country. That includes the fans, the players and everyone involved. Put that the first priority. Place the convenience of getting back sports — which we all love, I certainly love it, I’m an advocate for sports and an advocate for football — put that second.’
Right now, Rolle’s world has shrunk into the inside of the hospital and his apartment downtown. He gets out of his scrubs before he goes home and washes his hands even more than normal. He avoids common spaces and, in his building, he’s trying to exude cordiality without getting near anyone. He can only keep treating people if he’s healthy.
He gets most of the outside world’s news by overhearing conversations. Asked if the scope of the pandemic has felt personally frightening at any point, he says, "It hasn’t, honestly.” That’s not because it isn’t, he just hasn’t had time to think about it.
Rolle does have an athlete’s mentality when it comes to facing challenges. He’s confident; he likes teamwork and a common goal.
A lot of his best friends are still in the sports world. They’re all asking him what they can do, what it’s like in the hospital and what’s going to happen next. The last part is the hardest to answer, which is why Rolle views some of the prognostication about sports leagues getting up and running quickly with skepticism.
"The sports world, the administrators and the leagues, they need to place a high premium on the health of America, the health of the world and certainly this country,” Rolle said. "That includes the fans, the players and everyone involved. Put that the first priority. Place the convenience of getting back sports — which we all love, I certainly love it, I’m an advocate for sports and an advocate for football — put that second.”