On Friday morning the phone rang at 1 a.m., calling Manny Sethi – who is in a race to become the next senator from Tennessee – to come to the hospital. Sethi, who is one of Nashville’s premier trauma surgeons, would then perform not one surgery, but nine more before he went back home about mid-morning on Monday. “I guess I was working about 80 hours a week in the operating room,” he told me yesterday afternoon. “This is World War II, man, and if you’ve got two legs and a stethoscope, you’ve got to help people.”
Remember that, “you’ve got to help people …” because Manny has pushed his carefully planned campaign before the August primary to the side.
“Right now, there is a much bigger fight. If Tennessee can get a handle on the coronavirus by early June, I’ll still have the opportunity to get my message out there, but it is going to take some 80-to-90-hour weeks if I’m going to get a chance in Washington. At least I’m getting used to it!” he laughed easily, this despite the huge worry and anxiety found in every hospital across America today.
“There is nobody who is on the front lines who is not worried about contracting the disease. We take every precaution we can, and we can wear all the protective gear we can find but ‘social distancing’ doesn’t work too well in the operating room,” he said. “There are doctors my age who have died from the coronavirus in New York. Every day, during their breaks, we have nurses who go to the helipad on the hospital roof to pray … that means doctors and nurses and staff move continuously in 10-or-15-minute visits all day and all night.
“Prayer is a tremendous thing and when you realize that included in those prayers for patients and their families, they pray for their co-workers and hospital friends … their teammates … for me,” he shared, “It is really moving.”
Asked what his hardest moment has been thus far, Manny was unusually candid. “A couple of weeks ago the children were asleep in bed and Maya (his wife) and I had ‘the talk.’ You know … here’s the will, here’s who you should call if … you know … here’s what I’d like to happen if I die … that was hard. We both cried some, but these things are necessary. Our children are four and six and the six-year-old watches TV and stuff. He hears people talk and it’s particularly hard to keep your distance when all I want is for them to sit in my lap when I get home.
“As you know, my mother lives with us and she knows what I’m going through. She’s also the one who says, ‘You need to hurry, Manny … they need you at the hospital’ so between Mom and Maya, I’ve got wonderful support at home.”
Manny’s story is a great one. His parents, both from India, immigrated to America before Manny and his brother were born. He says, "They wanted to be doctors in rural America so we wound up in Manchester, Tn., where I have the most wonderful memories you can imagine." After Sethi graduated from the Webb School in Bell Buckle, he went to Brown and, as a Fulbright Scholar, he worked in Tunisia with children suffering from muscular dystrophy. He then went on to receive his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, where he also completed his orthopedic residency.
Long before he aspired to make a bigger commitment as a United States senator, Sethi founded a non-profit, ‘Healthy Tennessee,’ that he designed to promote preventative health care across the state. Mind you, it wasn’t for him; it was for Tennesseans who he has never met. This organization has cared for thousands of patients in almost every county in Tennessee and Sethi has been called to Washington several times to detail the highly successful effort.
In early March, you will remember a tornado with 165-mph winds hit Nashville and the swath went past Cookeville. Over 25 people were killed and the injuries were horrific. “A lot of people were really banged up,” Sethi says, “and for about 10 days it was non-stop. But the tornado was one event, then there was the aftermath. COVID-19 isn’t like that … it’s continuous and the demand gets greater by the day.
“I think the way people are responding is really saving lives. The death projections have just been downgraded as a result and the last I heard the estimates are 600 deaths in-state. While that is horrible, it is so much better than the original forecast. I heard a while ago we are up to 80 deaths today, but there is also news we have 165 new cases. I believe our hospital is in a good position to help handle what is to come,” he said.
“One thing most people overlook is while the virus is getting all the attention; the heart attacks, the car wrecks, the job-related injuries, and other real trauma events don’t take a vacation … it is the addition of the virus that beats down the health providers,” Sethi explained. “You cannot believe the heroes who have emerged.”
At a public forum a couple of weeks ago, the doctor wrote a prescription for the nation’s economy, cautioning that “human lives will always be more important than dollars.” He said he believes “our country can get people back to work and protect the health of Americans at the same time, but it must be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way.
“We have seen unemployment numbers reach records that are astonishing. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, much of the American economy has been shut down, hurting American workers, businesses, and families in a way we haven’t seen ever before,” pointing to the 6.6 million who are seeking unemployment.
“Tennessee is still dealing with this issue, but at some point, America cannot sustain a long, drawn-out shutdown. We must start working immediately on ways to get our citizens back to work and our economy moving. Our economy will not bounce back if portions of the workforce are seriously ill, or do not survive. In the operating room, when things are moving fast, I’ve learned we must slow down and think through the best way forward, instead of overreacting.” he said.
“I would recommend tackling this region by region, state by state, community by community. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole country. Some communities and states will recover from this virus breakout sooner than others. As the threat lessens, these areas need to start lifting restrictive mandates and get their economy back to work.”’
Sethi said the projections are for Tennessee to reach its ‘peak’ of the virus saturation sometime next week. He said the groundwork should be well in place by then “for individual communities to start lifting mandates once the health threat decreases in their respective areas. U.S. health officials should also work with state governments to assess quarantine and containment strategies based on evolving evidence.”
He also said the coronavirus is a wake-up call to all Americans, his belief being that “we must immediately begin to shift production of Chinese and foreign-made pharmaceuticals to the United States. This is a national security issue, and there is an immediate need for many important drugs to be produced here, and a need to immediately phase-in production of many others.”
Oh yes, Dr. Sethi is well-versed and well-studied on where our nation must go from here but, right now, he’s handling surgeries every day into the night. He’s very much a hands-on, front-line guy while the favorite to replace the retiring Lamar Alexander in Washington is a hand-picked Republican Party pawn, Bill Hagerty. It is well established that Hagerty, who is President Trump’s choice to deliver “the same old – same old” on Capitol Hill, cares far more about Washington’s muddled puzzle and its silk-stockinged society than he does the people and issues of Tennessee.
It may very well be Manny Sethi just did more for Tennesseans in one weekend than Hagerty has done in his entire life. I’m telling you true – the Republican Party’s Hagerty couldn’t carry “outsider” Sethi’s lunch bucket, and that you’ll soon see.