Lessons on Pandemics from a War-torn Country

When Brent Fryling ’92 returns home from the Lynn Community Health Center in Lynn, MA, each night, the routine begins: The scrubs come off and go in a plastic bag. He washes off, then eats dinner at a distance with his wife and two sons. After that, he resigns for the night to a room over his garage—his new home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Fryling hasn’t physically touched his family in two weeks, he considers the opportunity to practice social distancing with them a “luxury.”

“My patients have a lot of challenges to begin with,” he says. “There [are] areas in Lynn where folks don’t have options to quarantine,” even if a family member tests positive for COVID-19.

But in the throes of pandemic side effects that strike fear in many—apocalyptic scenes at grocery stores, a meat shortage and widespread unemployment—Fryling is not shaken. During five years of detecting and treating tuberculosis with a non-governmental organization in Afghanistan, he became accustomed to conditions currently causing alarm in the U.S. Despite the many hardships, Fryling says, Afghanistan continued moving forward with perseverance that makes him optimistic in light of the coronavirus’ impact in the United States.

“The majority of the world is a day-to-day economy where if you don’t work that day, you don’t have food that night,” he says. “Seeing these things firsthand gives me hope that even if the consequences of this pandemic are really bad, it is possible for a society to continue, but maybe just different than what we’ve known in the U.S.”

As a family physician in Lynn, Fryling cares for patients experiencing hardships—many are uninsured, speak English as a second language or have varied citizenship statuses. On a typical day before the pandemic, he and a team of nearly 40 providers and 700 total employees saw 1,000 patients who battled challenging diagnoses including HIV, Hepatitis C, depression and PTSD.

But much of the focus now turns to coronavirus patients. The Center offers both a non-COVID clinic and COVID-19 care, including a walk-in clinic that provides treatment for 30 to 100 infected individuals daily and a walkthrough testing service that tests up to 100 patients a day. To ensure the safety of high-risk patients, health providers rotate between the non-COVID and COVID-19 clinics with two weeks of precautionary quarantine in between, during which they make telemedicine calls.

Fryling is constantly reminded of his work overseas and humbled by those memories, which have made him more willing to serve on the front lines. “If I get sick and if I even die from COVID, I know that I’m going to be in one of the best hospitals in the world before that happened,” he says. “Living internationally brings perspective in situations like this.”