Our Chat With Dr. Stephen Sample

Dr. Stephen Sample

Courtesy Stephen O'Connor, MD

Dr. Stephen Sample is just a fucking ER doc. That’s how he presents himself on Twitter, at least.

But in the midst of our pandemic, he is slowly transforming into something more. These days, he’s becoming a staple of MSNBC coverage after a few star turns in interviews as a no-nonsense Southern Indiana doctor with anchors ranging from Katy Tur to Brian Williams. On Thursday, a clip of one of his recent cable hits on the 11th Hour with Brian Williams found its way into my Twitter feed.

In the clip, Williams asks Sample, whom he caught between emergency room shifts at Jasper Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center, what he makes of President Donald Trump’s call to stop funding the World Health Organization during a pandemic. Is it a good time to do so, Williams wants to know?

“Hooooo,” Sample says, gathering his thoughts. “Defunding the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic is about like me withholding emergency trauma care to a teenager in a car crash because the police officer told me he was texting and driving. Did [WHO] screw up? Hell, I don’t know. I’m a redneck ER doctor from Southern Indiana. But I will tell you this, we need them.”

I had just thumbed past another cable hit in which “Dr.” Mehmet Oz suggested sending children back to school for a “2 to 3 percent” mortality “trade off.” And then there was a clip of Dr. Phil comparing the novel coronavirus’s death toll to that of car crashes. Elsewhere, I found myself awash in pundits, politicians, and right-wing radio blowhards talking about an immensely human crisis in crass economic terms: The cure can’t be worse than the problem.

Into these bleak times strode Sample, a tonic in my timeline at a moment when politicians and quack doctors sell snake oil. A former aspiring country music star who moved to Nashville but traded his dream for scrubs, Sample is winning over cable producers—and audiences—with the blunt but humane analysis only a former Air Force doc who treated mortar wounds and IED casualties during tours in Iraq (2009) and Afghanistan (2011) can provide.

How did a “redneck ER doctor from Southern Indiana” end up as the hottest new addition to cable television? Sample told me he responded on a lark to Katy Tur, who put out a call for sources grappling with the coronavirus across the country. “I have an overwhelming dread that this thing will be an inevitability for me,” he wrote to her in a direct message. “We know this train is coming. I’ve seen it since the president said it was going to zero soon. Every fiber in my being cries out to grab my family and run. But I know that I am called to jump in front of it.” He made his first appearance the next week. (An Indiana University fan, he wore IU pajama pants beneath his collared shirt for the hit.)

Now more than ever, we need fewer Dr. Ozs and Dr. Phils and more Dr. Samples. Here, in an interview edited and condensed for clarity, Sample talks about everything from what it’s like to be an ER doctor during the coronavirus at the only hospital in a rural area (the next closest hospital is an hour away), what war taught him, and what frustrates him about the current political moment.

What’s the mood in Jasper right now?
Jasper is much like the rest of the country that is not actively burning. We’re pretty much a ghost town. Over the last month or so, as we started to cancel elective procedures and whatnot and opened up alternative sites for the bad colds to go and see if they qualified for COVID screening, emergency departments around the country have really emptied out. Our volumes have been down anywhere from 30 to 60 percent, depending on where you go.

We have had some COVID come through. I haven’t looked today, but as of yesterday when I was looking, I think Dubois County had 14 positive confirmed COVID cases. But as of yesterday, we had also tested 114 people out of whatever, 50,000 people in the county, so we don’t really have a good sense of what it is. One thing that has been strange that ER docs are noticing is in general, we talk about it online all the time, we’re like, Where are our patients?

I think what’s really happening is that people are coming in later in their illness. So instead of coming in at the first sign of chest pain, they wait 18 hours until they’ve fully completed their heart attack, or the appendicitis is waiting until it ruptures and they’re getting really sick. We’re kind of seeing people further down the line of their illness than we typically see them in the ER.

You’re in a high-risk profession to contract the virus. Are you afraid?
I’m not a healthy 19-year-old kid anymore. I’m in decent shape, but I’m 45 and I smoked for 25 years. I used electronic cigarettes to quit smoking, so even though I’m in decent cardiovascular shape, I don’t know what my lungs look like on the inside. My cousin’s husband just got his breathing tube taken out two days ago. He’s 40 and has been intubated in Orlando with COVID since March 26. He spent 20 or 21 days on the ventilator and he’ll probably never be the same from that. I fear for myself, and wonder, Am I going to bring this home to my kids?

My wife is a stage four cancer survivor. I wonder about her immune system. She’s not on treatment right now, but who the hell knows. It’s just been this constant simmering anxiety since this popped off.

I was like, I’m a two-time war veteran who practices emergency medicine. I’m 6’5″ and 230 pounds and I’m a snowflake all of a sudden.

You seem to have some strong political convictions. How do you think our response has been to the pandemic so far?
I’m pretty loud on Twitter, especially after a bourbon.

I think it’s been fairly obvious that it was bungled from the beginning nationwide and I think it’s exposed how important it is to have trust in our leaders. When we have leaders who blather on and make up things that suit their purpose today and then change their story tomorrow and people have stopped believing in truth as in just truth, then nobody really knows what to do.

I voted Republican my entire adult life until 2016. Some of it because I was immersed in the military culture and that’s pretty common. I was active duty Air Force for eight years, and it was a group think. I saw myself as being a high-income earner at some point down the road, and people tend to vote their pocket book. And then when I got out of that and I practiced emergency medicine in the community and saw the downstream effects of all these policies that have been put in place, I sort of moved towards the center. Somehow, in the age of Trump, I have become a whining, liberal crybaby.

I’m not really sure how it happened. I was like, I’m a two-time war veteran who practices emergency medicine. I’m 6’5″ and 230 pounds and I’m a snowflake all of a sudden. Yeah, so. But it’s been a constant frustration for me. It’s me screaming, “This is not bullshit, you need to pay attention.” I think I’ve helped some people, I think I’ve shocked some people because we forget sometimes—you’re a news person and I’m a news junkie, and most of these people really don’t follow that closely. They heard early on and tuned in, and now they’ve tuned out because it’s the same thing.

You’re an IU fan. Did you go to school there?
I went to IU for a couple of years and then dropped out of school. I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, because I knew that I was going to be the second coming of Garth Brooks.

When I was in high school, I was the leading man in all the musicals and stuff like that. And then I went up to IU and I found out that I was still good, even at IU. I got addicted to it. I moved home with my parents for a couple of months to save money to move to Nashville with my best friend and met my wife, or re-met my wife. We went to the same high school. I lived in Nashville for about a year, waited tables down there, and spent 95 percent of my time driving back and forth to the University of Evansville, where she was a nursing student.

We did it the old-fashioned way. We got pregnant, got married, had a baby, and I went back to school. I finished up at IU Southeast. Actually, I finished up my biology degree and then went to the University of Louisville med school on a military scholarship with the Air Force.

Dr. Sample during his service in the Armed Forces

You served two tours as a military doctor. What did war teach you about responding to a crisis like this?
I learned about war as a reality, not an abstraction. I will tell you, before I deployed, I was chomping at the bit to get over there. I just wanted to be part of it. I was so pissed off after 9/11. Just like everybody else in the country, I wanted somebody to pay and I had a lot of the whole, Let’s kill them all and let God sort them out mentality. I went over there, and my very first shift of my very first night, I took care of a young man.

He was 19 years old, from somewhere out in West Texas. I’ll never forget him. He came in, both legs were blown up. He was missing his left leg, I think above the knee, his right leg below the knee. He had had tourniquets on for, like, two hours.

He was in miserable pain, he was scared to death. He was my very first patient over there. I remember, after we had him stabilized, I was talking to him and just trying to keep him distracted. I heard that he had been stationed in northern Alaska. I said, “Oh, man, that must be tough for a West Texas boy like you. Used to 120-degree weather and now you’re up there where it’s freezing.” He said, “Sir, I love it up there.” He said, “I love cross country skiing and snowshoeing.” I looked down at his legs … when we got him off to the operating room, I went back to my office and cried. It was such a huge perspective changer and immediately I was like, Oh, my God, none of this [war] is worth this, none of this is worth this one kid. We have got to get the hell out of here.

What’s it like to hear other members of your profession—I’m thinking of people like Dr. Oz—downplay the seriousness of this health crisis?
Oz, man, he sucks. He just sold out. He sold out good science and medicine principles, and he’s a multimillionaire. I hope that I don’t have that number. I know we all have a number of where you’ll do some stupid shit for money, and I hope mine would be higher than that.

Are you concerned that people without access to health insurance will be hit harder than others, particularly in rural parts of red America?
You cannot talk about this illness in the age of politics without sounding like an asshole. We also know that people will die, there are going to be downstream secondary deaths from this illness; my heart attack (patients) aren’t coming in on time, my belly pain (patients) are not coming in, the people who are destitute and can’t afford their medications and are homeless …

We know that poverty is an independent risk factor for basically all forms of mortality, and now we’re creating poverty on a mass scale in our country. I saw Steve Mnuchin on TV today or yesterday saying that the stimulus would help people live for about 10 weeks. I was like, What the fuck are talking about? It’s $1,200. I was like, Clearly that dude hasn’t written a check in a long time.

The coronavirus—and responding to it—has become part of the culture wars. Does that concern you?
The virus doesn’t respect who you voted for, the virus doesn’t care what you believe, so it is terrifying that we are not all on the same page. Because as soon as people start traveling freely again, that one guy who gets on the one plane and carries it from New York to southwest Texas or to Louisville or to Indy? It’s going to smolder for a long time. It’s frustrating that we’re not on the same page. And again, it really comes down to top-down leadership. The leadership has got to inspire us. I feel that our highest offices should be inspirational in nature.

I’m pretty loud on Twitter, especially after a bourbon.

One of the biggest early-on responses that really frustrated me, and I think is what really kind of led Katy to want to have me on her show the first time, is that if you look at the polls that came out early on, Do you take this seriously or not?, it depended on where you lived in the country and how you voted in the election, not what science said, not what anybody in any kind of medical authority said. It just came down to, “I voted for Trump, Trump says this is the flu, so this is the flu.”

Would you like your MSNBC hits to turn into something more? What’s next for you?
I just have been sort of riding this. It’s just fun. My friends are giving me shit all the time, but I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I’d like to see, I’d like to see a show on TV that is physician-led.

Based on reading your Twitter timeline, the only thing that disappointed me is that you didn’t drop the F-bomb more.
Fuck. There it is.