New Yorkers rising up together to meet unprecedented challenges is in the fabric of this great city.
Through the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen countless examples of the community-minded selflessness and resilience associated with New York City and we’ve been inspired by those who have raised a hand and stepped up to help their fellow citizens.
In this spirit, we are setting out to reflect what’s truly undeNYable about our city and the people who make up our extended NYCFC family, all doing whatever it takes today to be back together again tomorrow through the sport we love.
undeNYable is a series of weekly themed stories here on NYCFC.com, holding up members of the NYCFC family who’ve shown the meaning of "For The City", coming through for their fellow New Yorkers when it has mattered most.
Dr. Christopher Ahmad is an orthopedic surgeon and Chief of Sports Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Head Team Physician and Chief Medical Officer for New York City Football Club. Five months ago, Dr. Ahmad’s typical day in the office would be spent taking care of injured athletes to help get them back to their sport, but as COVID-19 began to severely impact New York City, including his own family, he quickly ended up on the front lines of the pandemic.
Originally from Long Island, Dr. Ahmad received his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering while playing four years of Division I soccer at Columbia University. Growing up, his dream was to become the best soccer player he could be but as injuries began to change his course as an athlete, Dr. Ahmad realized there was another way that he could continue to give back to the beautiful game he loved so much. “I decided that I could stay connected to this game that I loved so much and serve soccer players by becoming an orthopedic doctor, a sports medicine specialist, and keep the dreams alive of young soccer players who want to continue playing,” he said.
As an 18-year-old engineering student, Dr. Ahmad had an opportunity to work in the orthopedic research lab at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Over 30 years later, he is an orthopedic surgeon and Chief of Sports Medicine at that same hospital. Dr. Ahmad finds great joy in being able to help athletes get back to continuing their dreams. “Getting people back to their sport, getting healthy, and sometimes even getting better at their sport… That's something that I'm able to be a part of and I'm able to impact. It's something that gives me great fulfillment.”
March is usually a quiet month for Dr. Ahmad with baseball in spring training and the MLS season just getting started. It’s a period of downtime he usually spends with his family before his schedule fills up as sports are in full swing. This March, however, Dr. Ahmad went to sleep one night with a shortness of breath. He had a cough that persisted all throughout the night, and had high fevers and body aches the next morning. These symptoms continued for about two weeks, and he would test positive for COVID-19. Soon after, his wife also fell sick with a fever and cough, losing her sense of smell and taste. His three children also experienced high fevers during this period. Although Dr. Ahmad and his family are recovered now, he describes his COVID-19 experience as a long road. “I feel like I have knee arthritis but in my chest. It's hard for me to climb hills. It's hard for me to walk upstairs. If I talk for too long, I start to get short of breath.” He continued describing the impact the virus has had on his body, “I started doing some running with the beautiful weather and I've already dialed down my expectations, trying to start from scratch as if I'm rehabilitating my lungs.”
As New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, NewYork-Presbyterian hospitals began caring for a large number of COVID-19 patients. At NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, elective orthopedic care was shut down and the operating rooms that Dr. Ahmad would usually perform surgeries in were converted to take care of COVID-19 patients who needed ventilator support. “My care that I give to patients who have elbow injuries or knee injuries were put on hold because they were not essential to the care of patients who were requiring treatments that would keep them alive.” He continued, “Our hospital instantly pivoted into a hospital that could take care of large volumes of COVID patients. That meant every aspect of the hospital was converted or modified.”
While it is unclear if he is now immune from the virus, since Dr. Ahmad and his family have COVID-19 antibodies, Dr. Ahmad felt that he was in a position to provide additional support to the hospital during this crisis. So, he had an opportunity to volunteer on the front lines in the emergency room. “I joined a workforce of every type of health care provider from nurses, emergency room, physicians, respiratory therapists, all trying to keep patients alive.” While his expertise was in putting ligaments back together and fixing broken parts of the body, Dr. Ahmad found ways to be a helping hand in the emergency room during the pandemic. “What I was able to do in the emergency room was essentially act as an intern like I was 25 years ago.” He continued, “I quickly got up to speed with drawing blood, putting in catheters in different parts of the body, checking ventilator parameters – all the issues that would offload the doctors that were needed more in certain aspects of keeping patients alive.”
In the emergency rooms and across the hospital, there was an empowering mutual respect among the healthcare workers, no matter what background or field they came from. Everyone had the same focus and came together instantly during this crisis. Dr. Ahmad recalled, “We just walked in and wherever we saw an opportunity, it was ‘How can I help?’ and then we went to work.” He continued, “It was sobering to see so much sickness and illness and even death... At the same time, there was a sense of honor that everyone came together to work as a team to take care of a crisis that we've never seen before.”
Dr. Ahmad credits New Yorkers’ for their great courage in handling what the City has experienced in recent months. “A crisis separates people based on their ability to manage fear. And that's what I think courage is, it's your ability to manage and work through fear.” He continued, “Like a fire that's burning, some people will run towards the fire. New Yorkers tended to run towards the fire to support – to either go into the building and get people rescued, or to support people who are coming out of the fire and give them immediate care.”
This courage that healthcare workers on the front lines and all New Yorkers have shown in the midst of so much fear and uncertainty as the city continues to combat this pandemic has been inspiring to witness for Dr. Ahmad. “Everybody overcame their fears, came together and showed extreme bravery. The more one person inspired another person, the more that person re-inspired, and it was this unbelievable exponential growth of inspiration.”
In addition to his daily shifts in the hospital, Dr. Ahmad was a constant source of support and education for NYCFC employees throughout the pandemic. He would join weekly staff calls to provide informational updates on COVID-19, and answer any questions he could. While it was important to take care of the sick patients in the hospital, he also knew how vital it was to educate the community around him on appropriate pillars of safety. “Being able to do that within the New York City community with people that we have a trusting relationship with was very important because the first thing that happens in a crisis is people become scared. Having resources of people that they could trust give valuable information, I think was important.”
Dr. Ahmad was also providing support to NYCFC’s coaches, players, and staff to help get the squad back on the pitch safely. This included working with league, CDC health officials, and the local government to design an effective system that would allow the team to train safely while taking all the necessary precautions to ensure an outbreak did not occur. Coaches, players, and staff also underwent regular COVID-19 testing, and additional heart testing was done on players who tested positive for antibodies to make sure they were safe to train from a pulmonary and heart perspective. “It's a very organized, thoughtful approach, respecting local government mandates, respecting the players in their home situations with their families, and making sure we're doing everything possible to keep it safe, knowing that this is an imperfect situation.”
Dr. Ahmad is now gradually returning to his typical orthopedic duties and his career has seemed to come full circle since his collegiate soccer days. “What's been interesting now as we get back to normal, the hospital that I'm currently operating in is NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. When I go to work, I get to look at the field that I used to play on 30 years ago. It reminds me of the days when I first committed to this field of becoming a sports medicine physician.”
Furthermore, that same soccer field has taken on another function that Dr. Ahmad can be proud of. “The bubble is still on because that field got converted to a field hospital. A hospital designed to take the load of patients off of the regular hospital system if the hospital got overwhelmed. I'm thrilled to see that field contributing to the care of COVID patients.”