December 14, 2020

Doctors of piping: Top physician-pipers on pipe bands’ return from COVID-19 – Part 1 (video)

After 10 months of COVID-19 trepidation, lockdowns, and cancellations, with the advent of vaccines and the announcement of 2021 UK competition dates the Northern Hemisphere pipe band world is so eager to get back to business it can practically taste that cold post-contest beverage in the beer tent, rubbing shoulders with friends, slaking a thirst for in-person camaraderie.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We all hope we can get back safely as quickly as possible. But how soon can we realistic expect to do that?

Way back in early-March 2020, when the reality of COVID-19 first started to sink in, pipes|drums tapped several pipers with a medical background for their thoughts. Not a lot was understood at that point, but it was apparent that we might be in for a long haul. Maybe a few competitions would be cancelled. Band practices on hold for a few weeks. Little did we know then that the entire UK, Canada, USA and European 2020 pipe band competition seasons would be complete write-offs.

With organizations like Google announcing that even with the rapid deployment of vaccines the company doesn’t plan to have workers return to offices until at earliest September 2021.

We all hope that there will be a 2021 pipe band season. But, given what we know now, how realistic is that?

Rather than looking strictly to pipe band associations for guidance, we checked in with experts in both piping and medicine. We put together a panel of four esteemed pipers and doctors, each at least equally adept in their fields as they are in piping and pipe bands.

(As a proviso, each physician stressed that any opinions they provided are strictly their own and are in no way officially associated with their hospitals or organizations. Readers are advised to consult their personal physicians and follow government guidelines.)

We’ll run the series in two parts, with written thoughts complemented by a video conversation that expands on various topics.

Dr. James Feeney is an accomplished piper and the Director of Trauma & Acute Care Surgery, Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. He’s seen it all when it comes to emergency medicine, as well as a few things as a member of various pipe bands, including the Grade 1 78th Fraser Highlanders, Parlin & District and Oran Mor. He connected with us in the accompanying video from his office at the hospital.

“The epidemiology would suggest that once 70% of the population is vaccinated, then there should be some form of herd immunity,” he says. “In the US the vaccination of high risk groups and healthcare workers should start before the end of the year. It’s a two-shot vaccine, each dose being separated by 21 or 28 days. Best estimates are that it will take at least until the spring, maybe even early summer, to make it through the first groups – four waves per the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention – of vaccinations.”

Dr. Lachie Dick is a Clinical Fellow in General Surgery at Borders General Hospital in Melrose, Scotland. He’s also one of the world’s top solo pipers and the former pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Edinburgh.

“I can’t see when fit, healthy, young people will get it, but I doubt it will be before the summer, given the scale of it.” – Dr. Lachie Dick

“I think a lot of it depends on how quickly they can vaccinate people,” Lachie Dick says. “Vaccines are starting with care home residents and vulnerable people, so not really the cohort of people that make up piping events. Equally, they are the most at-risk of dying, so it might not take for everyone to be vaccinated before things are relaxed. I can’t see when fit, healthy, young people will get it, but I doubt it will be before the summer, given the scale of it. It is also needs to be two doses a few weeks apart, so that also needs considering.”

Dr. Robert Gray is an accomplished solo piper and was a member of Grade 1 Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia. He served as president of the Competing Pipers Association in the 2010s. He is a National Health Research/Universities Scottish Senior Clinical Fellow and Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Physician with the University of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research.

Gray raises an important point that pipe band competitions are not solely about the bands.

“This disease has devastated society, particularly our older vulnerable members of the community,” Gray says. “The mortality over the age of 60 sharply rises sharply and, if we think of the piping community, we count on many more mature ex-players to provide judging and stewarding at our events, not to mention how much teaching is provided by this demographic.”

With participants ranging in age from seven to seventy-five, inoculation will have to be widespread, unless we accept that some will have to be kept out. Few would argue that younger pipers and drummers are our most important commodities, and preference should be given to getting them back on the field. But, with vaccination programs almost certainly making he elderly and infirm priority, younger players will likely be last to be vaccinated.

“That still leaves little lead time for big events, at least on the scale when the World Pipe Band Championships is normally held.” – Dr. Robert Gray

“Vaccination is starting in the UK. It is not clear when this will have a major effect on the pandemic, but hopefully we will see large numbers vaccinated by the spring,” Gray stresses. “That still leaves little lead time for big events, at least on the scale when the World Pipe Band Championships is normally held.”

As a Colonel in the United States Army Medical Corps and a residency trained and board certified emergency medicine physician, Dr. Martin Docherty works in US Army hospitals and in the civilian sector in major trauma centers and at large Veterans Affairs hospitals. He’s a decorated soldier and an accomplished piper. He was a member of the Grade 1 Bilston Glen under Pipe-Major Archie Pinkman and the 153 (Highland) Transport Regiment with Pipe-Major Peter Snaddon in the 1970s. He moved to the Midwest United States in the early 1980s where he completed his medical studies.

When we connected with him in the accompanying video, he was in the middle of a shift in a live operating theatre at the Biloxi VA Medical Center in Biloxi, Mississippi.

“The return to pipe band competition as we know it with unlimited crowds, no social distancing or mask requirements depends on several factors,” Docherty says. “Obviously, the rate of infection in the community is a big player. Currently, Australia and New Zealand have low rates of infection. Scotland, the US and now Canada are not fairing so well.”

Public confidence and a return to a state of “normal” need to set in for large public events of any kind to be held. Pipe bands themselves have numerous moving parts and concerns. Staging public pipe band competitions, at least on the scale we’re accustomed, is even at the best of times a feat of careful planning and calculation, numerous parties working together. Even organizers will need to consider whether it’s even worthwhile. Associations and event organizers are right to set dates, but, realistically, there are about four months – April 1 – at the outmost to make firm decisions on going ahead.

“In these places three things need to happen: Firstly, a vigorous vaccination program that is targeted at vulnerable populations needs to be rapidly introduced. Most indications are that this will happen quickly. Secondly, there needs to be a solid indicator that infection levels, or levels of serious illness from the COVID-19 virus are declining significantly, either due to vaccination or due to the natural course of respiratory viruses becoming less virulent over time. Thirdly, people need to feel comfortable that they can go back to ‘normal.'”

Stay tuned to pipes|drums for “Doctors of piping: Top physician-pipers on pipe bands’ return from COVID-19 – Part 2.”



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