What might be called the miracle of the smile transpired on Saturday in a Naples, Florida, emergency room as Dr. Ben Abo diagnosed five new COVID-19 cases over a 12-hour shift.
Two of these patients were ill enough to be hospitalized. One of these was a woman in her thirties whose symptoms were all too familiar to her.
“Her mom died from COVID in July,” Abo later said. “Now she has it.”
Abo conducted an antigen test to confirm what he already knew. The woman was not surprised when he informed her of the result.
He would recall then telling her, “You knew what I was going to say. We both know what you had and what was going on.”
He also said, “You’re really sick, but we’re going to take care of you. We’re going to admit you and we’ll work together to make sure you don’t have the same outcome as July.”
The woman was still crying when word reached her and the others in the emergency room that after five suspenseful days, multiple TV networks were declaring Joe Biden the victor in an election that initially seemed too close to call. Her continuing tears seemed to distill an added emotion.
“More happy,” Abo would recall.
And then it came.
The woman smiled.
“She was really happy with the election results,” Abo said.
The feeling seemed shared by the other patient sick enough to be admitted, a man in his early sixties whose wife had survived COVID-19 in recent weeks. The antigen test that Abo gave the man came back negative, but the symptoms prompted the doctor to administer a more accurate test. The results confirmed the man had COVID-19, but the emotional impact of this news from Abo was offset by the news that Biden had been elected.
“He was smiling and happy,” Abo reported. “Basically, he just said now he’s happy, now we can get on with moving on.”
Abo’s fellow medical medical workers in the emergency room seemed just as pleased. Any who felt otherwise were not saying so.
And Abo received one joyful text after another from friends in England, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Ethiopia, and seemingly everywhere else.
“Congratulations!... You’re free!... So happy for you… The world’s a better place…”
A TV in the ER brought news footage of unrestrained joy in New York and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The memory of a Village People song that President Trump hijacked caused Abo to take particular notice of images from Philadelphia.
“Everybody was in the street, dancing to ‘Y.M.C.A.,’” he said.
But Abo could not help but be distressed by the multiple scenes of people too close together, some not wearing masks.
“I was a little upset to see these giant crowds,” he later said.
Both the COVID-19 patients Abo was admitting to the hospital reported that they usually wear a mask but that they had also been around people who had not. The same was true of three other of his patients who tested positive that day. Abo had found that virtually all his recent COVID-19 cases were the result of somebody not following the established precautions.
“The last couple months, the only new cases that I would see, it was people who were either mask deniers or somebody in their family was,” he said.
And the number of new cases was rising in Naples, averaging more than 4,000 a day in Florida.
“It’s creeping back up,” he said.
Abo has been in the business of saving lives since he was teen in southern New Jersey, working his first shift as an ambulance volunteer the day after his 16th birthday. He had remained a paramedic through medical school and at one point started an ambulance service in Ethiopia that used dirt bikes with sidecars. He achieved a brief moment of fame while visiting New York City when he rescued a man who fell on the subway tracks.
Presently, Abo is a physician not only at a Naples emergency room, but also with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, where he serves as a medical director and team manager with the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force 1. The 15 people he knows who have died of COVID-19 include a fellow ER doctor, a firefighter, and an air paramedic. He seeks to ensure that his fellow first responders wear masks. He compares it to driving the wrong way on a highway without a seat belt.
“They still ask, ‘Are you still sure about the masks?’” Abo reported. “I tell them, ‘Absolutely!’ as I’m standing there, wearing my mask.”
He wonders how some private citizens who profess to support the first responders can continue to oppose masks.
“Despite us dying, and that sucks,” he said.
And nobody seems to consider that along with the quarter million American dead are many thousands who have been left disabled, these including one of his former ambulance partners.
“People who can’t work again,” Abo said.
Abo views COVID-19 to be at least as dangerous as the ailing King Cobra snake the veterinary school at the University of Florida happened to treat on Election Day. Abo is a venom expert along with everything else, and he was placed on standby during the procedure. Everybody took the necessary precautions, and the treatment ended on a good note all the way around.
“The snake is fine,” Abo reported.
But the Trump administration had failed to meet danger with precautions during the pandemic. The result was enough votes for Biden to be declared the new president.
And if Trump had helped put a woman in her thirties in the Naples emergency room with the same virus that killed her mother in July, news of Biden’s victory mixed happiness into her tears and prompted the miracle of the smile.
Abo ended the shift knowing that a majority of his fellow first responders were not at all pleased with the outcome of the election. He was in the same spot as many of us who are puzzled by the mystery of how some of the very best people we know can be Trump supporters.
“They are all just really gung-ho,” Abo said. “It’s actually awkward.”
He added, “I am, I admit, a little worried.”
He could take heart in the COVID-19 patient in his 60s who had said he was happy that now we can get on with moving on.
As Abo drove home Saturday night through the leading edge of a tropical storm, some other happy soul was expressing it in a way that made the sky itself seem to be shedding happy tears.
“I can see fireworks,” he reported. “Fireworks in the rain.”