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UW brothers on the front lines: Saving lives and advocating for change

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Identical twin brothers from Wisconsin are using their experiences working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic to raise awareness about the inequalities in health care and striving for a better future. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates Jesse (MD’14) and Joel Charles (MD’14) grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Green Bay and said they quickly learned how race, society and the environment can affect people’s health and access to care. 

“There was a moment growing up where our parents told us you're probably not going to play football next year because if you get injured, it would bankrupt us,” said Joel Charles.

“If you map out who has access to quality health care, those are the same people who end up at facilities that are understaffed and underfunded,” said Joel Charles. “Health and wellness is not distributed as something that’s right, it’s distributed as a privilege.”

Their experiences led them to focus on family medicine and their life lessons are now shaping their journey through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jesse works in Winthrop, Washington, more than 200 miles away from where the first U.S.  coronavirus case was confirmed. Joel splits his time practicing at a clinic in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and at the Vernon Memorial Hospital in Viroqua. 

As the pandemic progressed, Jesse decided to leave home in early April to fly out to one of the worst impacted areas in the world, New York. He was assigned to the Brooklyn Health Center and quickly realized he couldn't save everyone, facing uncontrollable outcomes.

“Going there and witnessing that level of suffering was very difficult," he said. "Watching entire families get wiped out by this virus, watching people die alone in the hospital and their family never being able to talk or see them again."

At times Jesse would get discouraged seeing these outcomes day after day, but during the times he could make a difference, he did everything he could.  While Jesse cared for his patients he also made it a priority to connect them with their loved ones. 

One patient in particular he remembers was a man whose wife died at the hospital and shortly after the patient started to lose his drive to live.

“I realized that his family had not been contacted in several days and so I facilitated his family through facetime to see him and then eventually was able to get them protective equipment to come into the hospital and say goodbye to him … he died later that day.”

During his time in New York, Jesse also experienced uplifting moments, ones that brought him to tears during our interview. He explained what it was like to see people's spirits after being released from the ICU. Once patients were taken off a ventilator and discharged from the hospital staff would play the Bob Marley song, Three Little Birds, a message that ‘every little thing is going to be alright.’

“When that played most of the nurses in the hospital would start singing along and I think there's a lot of uncertainty in the world right now about where we're headed and I think it's important to remember that we are going to get through this.” he said.

Jesse's extraordinary view of the virus exposed trends he and his brother Joel experienced throughout their lives such as the inequalities leaving some populations more vulnerable than others.

“People who are poor, or people of color, or other marginalized communities, they spend their whole lives exposed to a greater risk of  heart disease, asthma, high blood pressure, and then we're finding out those are the same things which make people more likely to get sick and die from COVID,” said Joel.

Instead of seeing patients, Joel’s day now consists of status updates, tracking coronavirus cases, and researching best practices from other health care facilities in Wisconsin, but also across the globe.

During his time researching, Joel said he grew discouraged with leadership on the national and state level when dealing with the crisis which has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. and thousands testing positive. He hopes leaders will learn for this pandemic, especially the willingness to listen to the experts.

“To avoid terrible decisions like choosing between health and the economy, the way to do that is to access the best information available, use expertise, and to use that towards helping people in need, primarily those who are most vulnerable,” said Joel.

Joel admits he didn’t have the same experiences as his brother, but said Jesse inspired him to pay it forward. 

“Many people reached out and asked how and I help, and the question I ask myself is, how do I empower myself and empower the people around me to make a difference,” said Joel

The Charles brothers said their beliefs on medicine and society flourished during their time at UW-Madison. Jesse and Joel referenced the “Wisconsin Idea,”  the principle that education should influence people’s lives beyond the classroom.

One of those values they honor is the “Sift and Winnow” plaque on campus, the “concept of academic freedom stating that the university should never censor or limit its members’ quest for knowledge.” This became a motto of theirs which they continue to instill in others during these unprecedented times. 

“When we talk about truth, sifting and windowing is separating fact from fiction. I think we have to rededicate ourselves to that as society...because the truth and facts is how to make the decisions that are going to save the most number of lives,” said Jesse.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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