Early in a special episode of Netflix's medical docuseries "Lenox Hill," Dr. Mirtha Macri is beginning yet another shift in the emergency department at Lenox Health, a division of Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital, when she pauses hesitantly in a corridor. She asks a wandering co-worker whether the empty room she's about to enter has been cleaned so she can run in and get a surgical gown.
It's early March.
"The way I feel right now is that I trained my whole life for this," Macri tells the camera. "It's not very often that a pandemic happens during your career in emergency medicine. ... I feel like it's my duty, I feel a little obligated to be here. But at the same time, you know, I don't want to be exposed because of (my) pregnancy."
"Lenox Hill" launched earlier this month and follows the lives of four doctors — including Macri — as they navigate the tightrope of their work and professional lives. But in a special episode, titled "Pandemic," released this week, cameras return to document the doctors as they maneuver through the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, then the U.S. hot spot of the virus, just as many Americans were beginning to self-isolate at home.
Directed and produced by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, "Lenox Hill" initially shot last year from April through November, with a small crew of four (including Barash and Shatz). Filming for the COVID special began in early March and continued through the end of May, with just Barash shooting.
Viewers of the series have come to know Macri as the dedicated emergency room physician who was itching to get back to treating patients after the birth of her son, Joaquin. When viewers reunite with her in the special episode, she’s pregnant with her second child and trying to make sense of the still-mysterious virus.
"To be honest, I was feeling anxious," Macri told The Times. "There was definitely a lot of fear. At the same time, we wanted to understand and grasp as much information as we could, because we didn't know enough. We knew from what was happening in other countries, but it just came at us like a tsunami."
The episode, which runs roughly 30 minutes, captures the whirlwind of uncertainty and the stress on resources (mask shortages, staffing issues) caused by the pandemic. The toll on Macri is palpable — she shares that she’s getting only two to three hours of sleep a night because of the pressure and anxiety of work and the growing risk faced by staffers. At one point, she breaks down in her car, wiping back tears.
Still, Macri insists she didn't feel burdened by having a camera around in such a precarious, stressful period. She appreciates that Barash was there to capture the early days of this unique moment.
"I was like, 'Yes, come to the ER, come see this, come film this' because we don't know if we're ever going to see it again," she said. "I thought it was very important to catch those moments."
Macri said there were many serious conversations with her husband and family about whether she should continue working in a high-risk environment while pregnant. To reduce the possibility of potentially spreading the virus, Macri's husband and their son ultimately moved in with her parents.
"My husband was very scared that the rest of the family could get exposed, including our son and our unborn baby," Macri said. "I had to work through that because my first instinct is to say: I trained for this and I want to be on the front line for this. This is probably never going to happen again in my career. So that was a huge struggle for me personally. It caused more anxiety and fear than the actual management of the virus. We're trained to manage illness. And I felt strongly about it."
Macri is currently working 12-hour shifts remotely, treating patients via virtual consultations. She says she'll work until she gives birth (her due date is in two weeks). She recently managed to find time to view the original first eight episodes of "Lenox Hill" and said they felt almost like period pieces.
"I felt sad," Macri said. "It was like, 'Oh wow, that was before COVID.' I wish I could just touch a patient's hand or walk into their room freely like that again, and I don't know when it will ever get back to that. Maybe years."
While it remains uncertain when we'll venture closer to a post-COVID era, more states have begun to lift some restrictions. New York City has seen a drop in the number of cases, while Los Angeles has seen a surge.
“There is a wide spectrum of people that are just demonstrating different feelings about this virus,” Macri says. “What frustrates me is that now it comes down to just the very basics. We’re asking people: wash your hands and wear a mask.”