Operating on the shoulders of history

A Local E.R. Doctor and Former Astronaut Talks Coronavirus in Houston

Dr. William Fisher, a former astronaut and father of Fox News Correspondent Kristin Fisher, explains what it's like in the hospitals, what we learned from the 1918 Spanish flu, and why he's more afraid to go into work now than he was to go into space.

By Catherine Wendlandt April 23, 2020

A few weeks ago, we spoke to an Italian doctor about what it was like on the European frontlines of the Coronavirus pandemic. Now, as Houston continues to trudge through the crisis, we wanted to know how doctors are facing off with the virus here. So, we spoke with Dr. William Fisher, a local E.R. doctor and a former NASA astronaut about what it’s like on the inside.

Fisher has been living and practicing medicine in Houston since the late 1970s. He joined NASA in 1980, and spent 170 hours in space—including two space walks—aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, which launched in late summer 1985. In 1991, he left NASA and continued to practice emergency medicine. Now 74, Fisher practices at clinics in League City and Pasadena as well as in Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center's emergency room here in Houston. 

Fisher's story went viral when his daughter Kristin Fisher, a Fox News correspondent covering the crisis in D.C., shared an Instagram post about his work in the E.R. back in March and then Fox interviewed him live on air. Kristin Fisher describes her father as a larger-than-life figure with a wild-man personality who's been preparing for a pandemic for decades. "He's been predicting this, and preparing for this for as long as I can remember," she says. Her father has had canned food stockpiled in a sort-of panic room in his house for years, and he even encouraged her to write about a looming pandemic for a sixth-grade paper, which is exactly why she thinks he should be out on the front lines.

"He's doing exactly what he was meant to do in this moment," Kristin Fisher says. 

What is it like working in a hospital right now?

I would say it’s like an ordered chaos, and on the East Coast, it’s like a nightmare. 

Are you nervous that the situation on the East Coast could make its way to Houston?

I think the fact that we’re not as densely populated and the fact that none of us want to catch this, and we’re being as careful as we can—I’m hoping that we don’t get it anywhere near as bad as New York has gotten it, or New Orleans, or Detroit, for example.

Have there been any changes in protocols at the hospitals because of this?

I’m wearing a white Tyvek bunny suit all the time. I wear a mask, I wear head-dressing, and I wear a plastic face shield, along with gloves, of course, the whole time I’m there. And it’s not comfortable; I mean, the mask is hot and scratchy, the suit’s hot, too, but we’re all being as careful as we can. I’ve never been so careful about something in my life, and I think I can speak for my colleagues.

What does someone who comes into the E.R. with COVID-19-like symptoms actually look like?

Here’s the weird thing about this: The typical symptoms—the most common are cough, fever, shortness of breath, and then things like muscle aches—so many other illnesses present the same way. The insidious thing about this is we think a large number of people are totally asymptomatic, but are still contagious.

How is COVID-19 different than the flu?

They said that that this thing was three times more contagious than the flu, and the flu is really contagious. It’s terrible. But we have a treatment for the flu, and we have a vaccine for the flu. We have neither for this thing for sure.

As of March 31, there were eight different strains of this virus. It started out with one from Wuhan, and then there was a second strain, and now there’re eight. And they’re all about equally dangerous. But there’s nothing to say that the ninth, 10th, or 11th strain won’t be much more lethal, so you have to keep watching that. 

Have you ever seen anything like this before?

Yeah, on television. Movies like Contagion, The Stand, or Outbreak. Those all dealt with similar situations—maybe a little more severe—but pandemics do come about once a century.

You’re well versed in the world’s history with pandemics. What can we learn from how the general public approached the 1918 Spanish flu?

You know, more people died of the Spanish flu in 1918 than all the deaths in World War I. It’s astounding how many people died from it. Air travel wasn’t nearly as extensive, so it would stay in one place and ravage it. But [the flu] managed to work its way around the world.

But we learned about social distancing then. In Philadelphia, they were advised to socially distance—this was 102 years ago—but they decided to go ahead and have this parade that had 200,000 people along the sides. Philadelphia later was devastated by the flu. The counterpoint to that is the city of Saint Louis rigorously practiced social distancing, and they had very little Spanish flu. The techniques that worked before work now.

Different states are projected to hit their peaks at different times. Is it safe for different parts of the country to go back to work when other places haven’t peaked?

It’s not safe, but neither is destroying the economy of our country. So, you have to weigh it: What is our nation worth? Do we wait until it’s perfectly safe, and then we’re bankrupt or in another depression? Or do we say, “We’re going to go back now. It’s not going to be perfectly safe for everybody, but we’re through the big hump"? We have to balance off our national interests against the safety of going back too soon.

You talked to your daughter Kristin live on air that you were more afraid to go into work now than you were to go into space. What did you mean by that?

When we started at NASA, before the first space shuttle flew, we were told we were expected to lose one out of every 25th flight. We were told it was a 4 percent mortality. Turns out, we only lost two, so it turns out to be maybe 1.9 percent of our shuttles were lost. So, we knew what we were facing, and we also knew the engineering that was involved. There was a lot of money spent on a lot of safety features—although nothing’s perfectly safe. But to tell you the truth, we were so well trained at NASA, and I had been through simulations so much, it wasn’t nervous lifting off, it was just “Neat” or “I’m glad I got to go.”

But there’s so much unknown about this virus, and currently the mortality is 6 percent—so that’s three times what NASA was—and it’s an invisible enemy. If you’re right in front of me, I can find you. If you’re a technical problem on the shuttle, we can fix it. But here’s the thing: it’s in the air, it’s on surfaces. So yeah, I’m an older guy, I’m 74 years old, this is a higher mortality rate, and I’m being as careful as I humanly can.

How has your experience at NASA and your 45-year career as a doctor prepared you for the current crisis?

Everything you do now [as a doctor] is a culmination of the people you’ve taken care of before, and they’re all with you. It’s kind of like at NASA. We used to say, “We are on the shoulders of giants.” Centuries of scientists and creative people have put together the knowledge and the mathematics and the physics to let us to do this. But we aren’t doing it, humanity’s doing it. It’s analogous that I practice medicine on the shoulders of all my previous patients, and bring all of their problems and the experience I had with them to me when I am in the E.R. And most of the time you don’t need it. I mean, a sprained ankle is a sprained ankle. But, in this case you do. It’s rewarding to use what you’ve earned.

You’re older, you have underlying health conditions, but you’re still going into work. Why not pass the baton to the next generation of doctors?

This is the greatest public health crisis in our lifetimes. It’s the greatest one, and to just blow it off and say, “I want to sit at home because I’m scared”? No. I’m concerned, and it’s a healthy concern, but I don’t like the idea of running away from danger, especially when it’s a danger I’ve been trained to combat. So, it’s not bravery so much as, "I can’t not do it," if you’ll pardon the double negative. I may live to regret these words, but right now I feel fine. 

Do you have any advice for Houstonians?

The main thing is, don’t go to the E.R. if you get sick, and don’t go to the hospital unless you’re really sick. If you have a sore throat, and you go to the E.R., that maybe where you pick up the coronavirus. Even if you have the coronavirus, unless you’re having trouble breathing, or you pass out, or you have something worse than just flu-like symptoms, you’re not doing anybody any favors by going anywhere.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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