In March 2020, a local attorney submitted an opinion essay to me for publication in the Des Moines Register. He also mentioned his brother was an emergency room physician in town.
That certainly got my attention. A novel virus was spreading. Death numbers were climbing. The nightly news brought images of overwhelmed hospitals, makeshift morgues and empty store shelves.
Those were terrifying days. An interview with an ER doctor was what every journalist wanted. Tom Benzoni was willing to talk. And talk, we did. Over the next two years, the Register published nearly 30 of our Q&As focused largely on COVID-19.
Benzoni, a 1983 DMU graduate and assistant professor, brought readers into the emergency room with him through our interviews. Iowans learned about patients presenting with low oxygen levels, scarred lungs, long-COVID symptoms and mental health problems. There were the unvaccinated patients with blood clots, chronic fatigue and a refusal to admit they should have been inoculated.
Benzoni shared the stories of his day. And he wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions.
Unvaccinated people have expressed “they don’t want anything to do with conventional health care. Then they show up for some of that conventional health care in the ER. That’s like the idea you’re married at home and single at work,” he said in September 2021. “If you’ve rejected the vaccine, you should reject the treatments. That has to be discussed. If I’m not good enough for you, then I’m not good enough for you.”’
Such no-nonsense talk made him a hit with readers, including other doctors who contacted me to express appreciation.
“Wear your friggin’ mask.”
“Wash your hands like your mother told you. Don’t cough on people.”
The side effects of the vaccines are “euphoria, relief and people getting their lives back,” he said after receiving his own shots.
When I asked him whether Iowans should gather for Thanksgiving in 2020, he suggested they find a way to celebrate that didn’t include coming together indoors.
“Instead of a traditional family meal with 20 people at a table fighting with each other and crazy Uncle Joe getting drunk, make some new memories. You don’t have to sit inside all day stuffing your face.”
When I told him about my friend who claimed a vaccine had magnetized her and she could stick a key to her neck, Benzoni asked if she was wearing a tinfoil hat, debunked the myth and added: “By the way, most keys now are made from aluminum, which isn’t magnetic.”
Readers also loved the science lessons he delivered — explaining everything from aerosol transmission and messenger RNA to viral mutations and antibody cocktails. The Delta variant “reminds us how nature works,” he said. “The virus will adapt and find the path of least resistance to survive or reproduce.”
There were also the history lessons — on Ebola, the 1918 flu pandemic, the British surgeon castigated for suggesting doctors should wash their hands between patients, and the anesthesiologist who traced the cholera epidemic in London to a water pump on Broad Street.
“He got the handle removed. The epidemic stopped,” Benzoni said, illustrating the importance of closing bars to stop COVID transmission.
Our interviews were telephone conversations that lasted about an hour, frequently when he was driving to or from a hospital. I tried to type as fast as he talked. After our discussion, I reshaped, cut and Googled words like “homunculus” and “vasculitis.” Then I emailed him the final 800- or 900-word Q&A to review before publication. The last thing this non-scientist journalist wanted to do was confuse myocarditis with myoclonus in print.
I learned a lot. Readers learned a lot. Perhaps most important, the interviews created a permanent, public record of moments in the pandemic.
The passage of time makes it easy to forget the intense fear before vaccines and the intense relief when we finally got them. We can now get N95 masks free at pharmacies and hand sanitizer on clearance. We aren’t wiping down our grocery bags anymore. Memories fade about how bad things were at certain points and how far we have come.
The interviews immortalize details of the pandemic journey.
Over my two decades as a journalist, I interviewed hundreds of people, from presidential candidates and scientists to U.S. senators and small business owners. But interviewing Benzoni was special. It was a collaboration with the goal of educating Iowans during a dangerous period of our history.
I never took for granted the time he spent talking to me. It can be hard to get doctors to talk. They are busy with patients and paperwork. They are sometimes constrained by health systems trying to control messaging. Some people are understandably reluctant to talk to media.
I recently asked Benzoni what he thought about our interviews. Over two years, we had become friends. Our spouses had become friends. We all rode bikes together and shared garden seeds.
What do you think of the interviews and what’s your message for other docs, Tom?
He said a doctor’s license to practice medicine is a personal privilege, not owned by any institution. He explained crisis management and being first, right and credible. He talked about how local experts are the most important people for conveying public health messages.
“Physicians are trusted members of their communities. People trust me with their lives, and we owe a debt back. Part of that debt is communicating with the public.”
Amid a deadly pandemic, that communication saves lives.
Andie Dominick is a writer and former editorial writer for the Des Moines Register. She was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.