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Military doctor hopes his commander-in-chief has found a new trait: empathy

"I’m quite concerned. He has a host of risk factors, apparently he required oxygen, and it looks like he likely left the hospital prematurely,'' said Dr. Jon Santiago.
"I’m quite concerned. He has a host of risk factors, apparently he required oxygen, and it looks like he likely left the hospital prematurely,'' said Dr. Jon Santiago.Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe

Like a lot of us, Dr. Jon Santiago has watched President Trump’s recent activities with a combination of curiosity and alarm.

Santiago has an unusual vantage point — he is an emergency room physician who has treated hundreds of COVID patients; an elected official (a state representative from the South End); and an officer in the Army Reserve. In fact, he spoke to me Tuesday from Kuwait, where he is spending a few months on active duty in a military hospital.

I was curious about how Trump’s eagerness to declare victory over the virus felt to someone who has spent the pandemic watching patients — patients with nothing resembling Trump’s resources — struggle to recover.

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Santiago, a Democrat, said he hopes Trump has learned from contracting the virus. To say the signals on that front have been ambiguous is an understatement.

“The message doesn’t necessarily correspond with the urgency the matter requires,” Santiago said.

“My hope is that given that he was infected — and I take him at his word — that he’s developed a new level of empathy for people who have been infected, that he’s changed.”

Isn’t it awfully soon for any patient to declare victory, though?

“First and foremost, my heart and sympathies are with the president and first lady,” Santiago said. "But if I’m honest, I’m quite concerned. He has a host of risk factors, apparently he required oxygen, and it looks like he likely left the hospital prematurely.

“One could argue that he will get well and that’s the likely scenario. But having treated hundreds of patients, some of whom came back to the hospital significantly impaired, I wouldn’t roll the dice.”

Santiago stressed that his comments aren’t meant to be political — they can’t be, as he’s on active duty. But his concerns are shared by pretty much anyone who believes that the illness marching through the highest levels of our government right now is destabilizing, and therefore bad for the country.

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The view that Trump will emerge as more empathetic might be a bit optimistic. For all of his declarations that he has now experienced the virus, which instantly became a GOP talking point, there are also episodes from recent days in which he has shown wanton disregard for the possibility of infecting people around him, from White House staff to Secret Service agents.

But Santiago seems to be a believer in the power of illness to shift one’s point of view, pointing to his own recent battle with appendicitis.

“I got sick two months ago and had surgery,” Santiago noted. “It changed my perspective and made me a better physician and elected official.”

So there’s hope, perhaps.

While I’m skeptical that Trump is as healthy as he claims to be — steroids will do wonders, temporarily — I’d like to believe that he will come through this crisis as a better leader. One who can finally think of this pandemic in broader terms than what it means for him.

That view has been lacking, so far. Anyone who practices medicine in the shadow of Methadone Mile gets a daily reminder that very few patients get airlifted to a hospital like Walter Reed at the first sign of trouble.

“I think if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that disparities exist and when crises happen, whether public health or economic, they will disproportionately affect people of color and poor people,” Santiago told me. “I hope we, as a society, take that message to heart and that while we get through this and develop a vaccine that we think about those who are least-served and most vulnerable.”

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As he called in from his hospital, Santiago couldn’t help worrying about one other thing as well: the way it was tearing through the White House. “If it becomes a super-spreader event, that’s a big national security concern.”

He hadn’t heard, until I told him, that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had gone into quarantine Tuesday after one of them tested positive.

I could almost feel him cringe through the phone.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.