A Big Year for Emergency Department ‘Trailblazer’
One in a continuing series
Dr. Merle Carter’s life has gradually transitioned from the pandemonium of COVID-19 to the chaos of daily crises that is the life of an emergency physician.
The pandemic was tumultuous for ED physicians everywhere, and Merle Carter, MD, Vice Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Einstein Healthcare Network, was no exception.
For one thing, she came down with the virus herself. Ironically, she thinks she contracted it at a conference in New York City in early March, not while working with COVID-19 patients in the ED. She had a relatively mild case and was back to work after a couple of weeks.
She was also in the middle of the already stressful ordeal of relocating. Dr. Carter and her husband were selling their home to move in with and care for her 88-year-old mother and best friend.
Then the medical meteor hit. “For me the worst part of it has been the fear, anxiety and terror of possibly taking the virus home to my family,” Dr. Carter says.
Dr. Carter also had another worry during the peak of the pandemic: where were the hundreds of people who usually populated the emergency room every day? Where were the heart attacks, the strokes, the broken bones?
“We were so fearful about the people out there who were languishing – that’s a lot of what we talked about day in and day out,” she says, of the many individuals who were too afraid of contracting the virus to come to the ED. “We have seen people die of non-COVID related illnesses because they waited too long to come to the hospital. That was heartbreaking.”
The year has not been without its gratifying moments for Dr. Carter, however. In May, she was named one of eight Trailblazing Women in Philadelphia’s Healthcare Revolution by Philadelphia Magazine, along with Einstein’s President and Chief Operating Officer, Dixie James.
In 2019, Dr. Carter received the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Physicians’ Meritorious Service Award for making significant contributions to emergency medicine in Pennsylvania. She’s one of only three women to be honored in the award’s 34-year history.
And there was the joyful moment late one February night, when she was walking to the hospital cafeteria and stopped in her tracks. The main hospital corridor was lined with photographs of 100 African-American “History Makers of the 20th Century” as part of the hospital’s celebration of Black History Month. Dr. Carter had close personal ties to two of them.
“I said, ‘Oh, my god, there’s Aunt Helen!’” she says. And then: “There’s Uncle Paul!”
“Uncle Paul” is the Rev. Paul Washington, who was for a time affiliated with the Church of the Crucifixion, one of the first primarily African American Episcopal churches in Philadelphia – and the church where Dr. Carter’s family worshiped for many years. Father Washington, a prominent activist in the cause of civil and women’s rights, is her uncle’s brother-in-law.
“Aunt Helen,” Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, was the obstetrician who delivered Dr. Carter. Dr. Dickens was the first African American female fellow of the American College of Surgeons and Dr. Carter’s aunt’s best friend.
“She was instrumental in me pursuing medicine,” Dr. Carter says. “She was a tremendous mentor and advisor. I’d work for her in the summers in the hospital instead of going to camp. She made sure I took the right classes in high school and college and guided me in preparing for medical school.”
Dr. Carter chose to practice emergency medicine because “I wanted to be in an environment where I felt like I could make a difference for the community. I wanted to serve at the moment when a person or family is in crisis,” she says.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to help someone through something that’s terrible. You try to do what you can to reverse it or slow it down and, if not, to be a compassionate and empathetic partner in what’s going on.”
Dr. Carter was so amazed by Einstein’s photo exhibit that, pre-COVID, she brought her mother to the hospital to see it. Her mother personally knew many of the leaders who were pictured. And Dr. Carter could see the pride on other visitors’ faces when they looked at the exhibit.
“The exhibit reminds us that people of color have contributed a lot to our city, our culture and our society in ways other than music or sports that aren’t celebrated in the media,” Dr. Carter says.
One minor consolation of the pandemic is that the exhibit, on loan from the African American Museum, was supposed to have been returned at the end of February. As Dr. Carter transitions from the pandemic back to the daily crises that unfold in the emergency room, the photographs are still up.