By Patti Samar
Just like in any profession, there are physicians who are good at their jobs, and then there are those who stand apart from the crowd. Their lights shine so brightly, you can see them coming from far, far away.
Annette Mercatante, M.D., is just such a physician. Our community is beyond fortunate that, more than a decade ago, she left the safety and comfort of private practice to tackle public health.
Though we might not have made note of it, all residents of St. Clair County reap the healthcare benefits of her leadership and guidance. Sometimes, the brightest lights are shining underground – behind the scenes, if you will – where not everyone can see them, but where they are needed the most.
And now, in 2020, her leadership has taken on new meaning during this worldwide pandemic. As this story is being written, St. Clair County has less than 50 cases of COVID 19, no new cases over the previous few days, and no one in the hospital with this illness.
We wouldn’t be here, righting a listing ship, if not for Dr. Annette Mercatante.
Throughout the early days of the pandemic, Annette Mercatante, M.D. was sending her staff emails at all hours of the day and night. A few members of her staff chuckle as they recall arising to emails sent at 2, 3 or 4 a.m.
The entire staff of the St. Clair County Health Department, under the direction of Mercatante, who serves as both chief medical officer and the lead public health officer, worked seven days a week through the early days and months of the Coronavirus 19, also known as COVID 19, pandemic.
“I’m relying on a village here,” said Mercatante, reflecting on her nonstop work days and nights since the pandemic hit the nation hard in mid-March. “I’ve got a great staff. It really does take a village, and you have to know what sources to trust as you read and research and look for answers.”
Though her days have been brutally long, and the answers have been hard pressed to present themselves to her – “The amount of decision-making is just daunting, with not a lot of answers” – there is likely no place she would rather be than in her current position.
“I just felt called…compelled…to do this work and maybe, in some strange way, this is why,” she said of her decision to enter into a life of public service via public health administration more than a decade ago.
“When you are trained in the medical profession, you learn really quickly when you get out of medical school, that there is more ambiguity than answers, so I’m comfortable in this environment.
“This is normal on steroids.”
A Generational Gap
Mercatante noted that anyone middle-aged or younger in the United States has grown up during a very privileged period of time in terms of public health.
“In our grandparents age, getting ill and dying from infectious disease was very common,” she said. “Then we entered the age of antibiotics and vaccines,” which, she noted, helped all but eliminate disease that in prior generations had caused much illness and death.
“Every generation prior to the 1950s dealt with this all of the time,” she said. “It’s the first time in our lives that we’re encountering this, but this was a common event at one time.
“And that’s why I know it is going to be okay, because all of those people before us moved on.”
Living as a Social Society
When Coronavirus 19 began infecting people, it quickly became apparent that it was highly contagious and so social distancing, which, for many people equated to isolation, became a key component to stopping the spread of the disease.
Now, in the early summer of 2020, as the United States has begun reopening its economy, individuals, families and friends are all having to make decisions, sometimes on a daily basis, regarding the kind of risks they are willing to take in order to remain healthy and unaffected by COVID 19, to the best of their ability.
“It’s going to come down to each individual making those decisions for themselves,” said Mercatante. “If you are the person with a child, and you want that child to know his grandparents, you have to decide on what risks all of you are willing to take. You weigh those things into the conversation.
“A person’s personal capacity for accepting risk comes into play.
“When you choose to live in a society with other people, there is beauty in that,” said Mercatante. “But this is the price you pay, but I think it is worth it.”
The Fluidity of Science
One important aspect of dealing with this pandemic is that all healthcare providers are learning on the fly. Physicians are using their training as scientists to learn the best way to treat each COVID 19 patient.
Mercatante said that science and fact-based training helps medical care providers learn what works, as well as what doesn’t, along the way.
“One of the things I’ve always valued as being a trained scientist is that you have a hypothesis, so you start out thinking one thing, but something comes up that leads you in a different direction, and therefore your conclusion might end up differently than you thought it would.”
Though scientists might still be learning many new things about COVID 19, their medical training and the efforts of scientists over the past several decades and even centuries all provide a basis of working knowledge that is very helpful.
“After 30 to 40 years of vaccines, we can feel pretty confident in our knowledge of how this works,” she said, which will help researchers who are working on a COVID 19 vaccine.
Crisis Within a Crisis: Mass Protests During a Pandemic
Mercatante noted that the protests taking place across the country regarding a call for policing reform and the end to racism are all part of larger societal issues.
“We all know there’s a lot that needs changing, certainly with our healthcare system.”
Brightness in a Dark Tunnel
After the months of working seven-day weeks around the clock, Mercatante does, indeed, feel as if there is much to be hopeful about.
“I feel like I’ve got my sea legs,” she said of seeing the community through the worst of the crisis. “I’m hopeful if we’re strong and resilient – and most people are – that the more we rely and support each other, we will be a stronger society.
“I think we’ll see some beautiful things. I think we will be in a better place.”
Coming Out of the Tunnel
Mercatante noted that: “Change makes people uncomfortable, but from that a lot of good can come.”
In her own life, she uses her faith to help her through the most difficult of times.
“They say ‘thy Kingdom come on earth’…whatever you believe that Kingdom to be.
“I don’t like to see Heaven as a place to die to get to. I like to think we can have it here on earth, too.
“I’m proud and humbled to have the opportunity to be a part of that.”