On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, Dr. Robert Gore was doing paperwork in an AirBnB he shares with a colleague. “This is the fourth bed I’ve slept in this week,” he explained. He had been at a different one the day before, but there were “sanitary issues” so they had to find other accommodations. This one seemed cleaner and it was close enough to check on his wife, Hibist, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child.
Over the phone Dr. Gore sounds upbeat, he laughs freely and I can hear it in his voice when he smiles and tells me to call him “Dr. Rob.” I am amazed he has any energy at all or can find a reason to smile. He’s been living apart from his wife for more than a month now, in an effort not to spread the COVID-19 virus to her and their unborn child. Dr. Rob reflected on the past few weeks and compared it to his experience working in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake noting, “all sorts of similarities and parallels and differences and one of the things that I forgot was how tired I was working during the earthquake and it’s the same thing I’ve felt during the first few weeks of COVID-19. Unsettled, stressed, I don’t have my routine.” It’s hardly the glamorous life many imagine for doctors.
An emergency room physician at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, one of the first COVID-19 designated hospitals in the area, Dr. Rob is drawing upon every strength, skill, and ounce of energy he has. But he’s seemingly where he belongs, where he is meant to be. “I always knew I wanted to help people,” he explained. He contemplated teaching, Foreign Service, and for a while architecture. His path to medicine seems simultaneously accidental and destined.
Becoming A Doctor
While attending a running camp as a teen, Dr. Rob suffered an injury and was sent to see an orthopedic surgeon. Thankfully, he didn’t need surgery, but he was fascinated by Dr. Answorth Allen. “I was shocked because I had never had a black doctor before,” he recalled. Allen was fresh off his residency at the time; he would eventually work as a team orthopedist for the New York Knicks and the New York Mets. But first, he was going to help young Robert Gore become a doctor. Gore remembered, “He said, ‘You want to be a doctor? Okay, we’re going to help get you there,’” He decided to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was repeatedly told about leadership and how it was not just an option, but an expectation of a Morehouse man. “There was this thing inside that made it doable. People who looked like me had done it before me and had blueprints on how I could do it.” Gore did it. He finished at Morehouse and went directly to medical school at SUNY Buffalo.
Dr. Rob received more than just a medical education in Buffalo. His mother’s family has lived there for six generations. He wasn’t just a young doctor there — although he was often greeted with “Are you old enough to be a doctor?” In Buffalo he wasn’t just treating patients. “These were my grandparents’ neighbors; they shop at the same supermarket, they knew my family. Patients would say, ‘You’re Ora’s grandson’ or ‘Bonnie’s nephew.’”
From Buffalo it was straight on to Cook County Hospital in Chicago for residency. Dr. Rob’s father had grown up there so the other side of the family took their turn looking after the young doctor and giving him the lay of the land. He heard repeatedly, “County Hospital is where you go to die.” Acutely aware of healthcare disparities and a healthy amount of distrust for doctors and medical professionals in the black community, Dr. Rob leveraged his familial relationships to change minds and hearts. “Patients gravitate toward a doctor or healthcare worker when the worker is genuinely concerned about their well-being,” he explained
“It helps when your providers understand who you are and where you come from in a different dynamic—when they understand your pedigree and where your heart is because they knew your mother and grandmother. When you have an understanding or seek to have an understanding of what people are going through then that rapport is created, patients understand you have their best interests in mind.”
Practicing in the Time of COVID-19
Now, in his hometown of Brooklyn, Dr. Robert Gore is once again using his training and connections to save lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged New York, especially the black and brown communities. “I’ve spent my career working in black, brown, and immigrant communities,” he explained. “I purposefully decided to work in these communities because I knew they didn’t have access to good, regular, medical care.” He’s hopeful change is coming. “Now, those same disparities can happen to others, and those others are saying, ‘we don’t want that to happen to us.’ So if we don’t fix this situation—particularly as it relates to COVID-19—and make sure people have the support and resources to get better, those individuals are going to come into our spaces, which has a direct impact on our ability to
stay well. And when it affects people who have money, different resources are allocated to bring an end to that problem.” And that’s what he’s seeing with COVID-19.
Dr. Rob stresses that COVID-19 symptoms can vary from person to person, and that some are not as well-known as others. “We see the cough, the shortness of breath, the fever, body aches or what we call myalgia, the flu-like symptoms,” he explained. “But some patients are experiencing a loss of smell; some are coming in altered and confused. We’re seeing people with very, labored breath where they’re using all of their accessory muscles in their backs and their shoulders just to get some oxygen and breathe properly.” Those are the people he says need to seek immediate medical attention.
The Importance of Self-Care
Since there is currently neither a cure nor vaccine for COVID-19, Dr. Rob stresses the importance of taking precautions to prevent yourself from catching the virus. “I wear a mask when I leave the house and the only time I remove my mask is in the car . . . This is our reality right now.” He also cautions people about misinformation. “When you aren’t well informed or are poorly educated you tend to be hit hardest by these different disease processes. I recommend people get informed (he cites cdc.gov as a reputable resource for the public) and I also recommend people take precautions regarding health and hygiene. Handwashing, eating healthy, minimizing a lot of the chronic stressors are other ways to keep people’s immune systems high.”
Despite his medical training and mental acumen, Dr. Rob is still taken aback by the spread of this virus. “I thought this was going to be like every other viral infection, not thinking this was going to become this global pandemic to where I’d be wearing spacesuits and these futuristic looking Star Wars-esque masks as part of my work outfit every day.” He also has a quirk that actually works in his favor, especially these days. “I’m pretty OCD about health and wellness,” he chuckled. “And because I’m around sick people all the time, this is almost like being in a state of war and I need to be at my best, I need to be ready. Anything that’s going to compromise my ability to do well and perform properly, I try to avoid it.” In addition to avoiding the bad, Dr. Rob embraces the good. “I do daily meditation, I work out every day— even if I only have 10 minutes I still do something. I did an hour-long chi gong session this morning.” He’s an avid snowboarder, is brave enough to skateboard throughout New York City regularly, and enjoys all manners of physical activity. “I do 1–2 hours of physical activity daily to keep my breathing capacity and keep physically fit because if you’re fit you tend to fight off infection a lot better and exercising regularly minimizes cortisol levels. I’m a healthcare provider. So if I’m not healthy, how do I inspire confidence in my patients to believe in what I’m telling them?”
As if treating patients during a pandemic isn’t enough, Dr. Rob faces additional stressors in his personal life. “My wife being pregnant definitely puts a lot of this in perspective. My main objective is to keep her and our child as safe as possible. I don’t see my parents because they’re older and I also need to make sure to keep them safe because I could be asymptomatic,” he said. “I limit my exposures because I want my family to be around and I want them to be healthy.” His wife, Hibist, owns Bati Ethiopian Kitchen in Fort Greene. “We’re still open,” Gore said wistfully. “We’re doing all orders online for delivery or pick-up. The business has been impacted; it’s not enough to make a living. We’re fortunate I still have a job so we’re able to take care of us and our family, but it is a major stress and strain.”
Gore’s voice perked up as he said, “I saw her (Hibist) the other day from 12 feet away, wearing a mask, talking to her from a distance, yelling through my N-95 mask and my other mask on top. There are definitely some fears involved, making sure I stay healthy. That’s one of the reasons why I’m staying in an AirBnB.” He anticipates at least another four or five weeks living apart from his family, so he does a “digital PPE fashion show” regularly where he sends Hibist pictures of himself in various styles of full
protective gear and she rates which ones she likes most.
While his current existence is both physically and mentally grueling, Dr. Rob seems to have been built for exactly this challenge. His meditation and physical conditioning have thus far served him well and kept him healthy despite working on the frontlines of what we can only pray is a once in a lifetime crisis. As I wished him every blessing with his work, his parents, his wife and unborn baby, Dr. Rob reminded me to wear my mask and wash my hands often, which reminded me he pursued medicine because he wanted to help people. He offered some advice in dealing with people who shrug off social distancing and wearing face masks, “Consider that you’re not just doing this stuff for you,” he said. “You’re doing it for others around you.”