'We have to be careful': Grand Prix's 'Dr. D' sees COVID-19 on front lines at Detroit Receiving

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

When the Detroit Grand Prix announced last week the late May race was canceled and will return to Belle Isle next year in June, Trifun Dimitrijevski was profoundly disappointed.

But Dimitrijevski, perhaps more than anyone involved in the Grand Prix IndyCar race weekend, has a clear understanding why the move had to be made.

Dimitrijevski, an emergency room physician at Detroit Receiving Hospital, is on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients during this pandemic. He’s also deputy medical director of the Grand Prix — he is known as “Dr. D” in racing circles — and considers race week like Christmas.

Dr. Trifun Dimitrijevski stands in front of the DMC Heart Hospital on Friday.

There is still racing scheduled for this year, with the IndyCar season is set to begin in early June at Texas Motor Speedway, but it was not feasible to hold the races at Belle Isle next month.

“The only really thing we have to battle the coronavirus pandemic is social distancing,” Dimitrijevski said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. “The perception became, and I think this is very important, how are you going to run an event that’s going to lead to a mass gathering when we are now in the midst of a pandemic? And I think that’s right.”

Dimitrijevski, also the director of high fidelity medical simulation for the Wayne State School of Medicine, had a recent stretch working eight of 10 days because the need for medical care in the city as a result of the pandemic is so great.

Because of his work, he feels certain trying to hold a race in late May would not have been possible.

“Based on what we’re seeing right now, Michigan is third only behind New Jersey and New York in terms of number of cases and deaths,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are still seeing a fairly sharp upstroke in number of patients that we see both infected and deaths, and I don’t think we have seen the necessary flattening of the curve or plateau for us to comfortably say, ‘Hey, I think maybe we’re starting to see a lightening in this and maybe we are starting to predict there’s a return to somewhat normalcy in the near future.’

“I don’t think we’re there yet, and that’s my opinion as a provider and what I see. Every day I go to work in the emergency department, I live this. I think May would have been too early of a time to return to normalcy with this race. Everybody involved with this race wants the fans to be there to run it. To run this kind of a beautiful race that we have on our island with no fans in the stands, that would kind of be a crime. I definitely think it was the right thing to do, and trust me, this is coming from a guy who the week the Detroit Grand Prix starts, to me that’s Christmas morning. As much as it hurts to say so, it was the right thing to do.”

The need for medical personnel on staff of races is paramount, as evidenced most recently in February’s Daytona 500 accident involving Ryan Newman. Dimitrijevski praised Grand Prix chair Bud Denker and general manager Michael Montri for giving him all the resources he needs and is proud to say his medical team has the reputation as the best for a temporary street course.

Dimitrijevski is used to facing the unpredictable nature of his work, whether at the race track or in the emergency room treating patients, but working during the coronavirus pandemic has been an entirely different challenge.

“All of us who are in not only in emergency medicine, but any physician who provides any kind of acute care, whether that be the traumatically injured, the very sick, infected patients, we all go kind of go to work each day with a little bit of respectful fear of our job because that keeps us honest, because on any given day, at any given moment, you don’t know what’s going to come through the doors,” Dimitrijevski said. “So that element of unknown does keep us honest, and the thing that adds a little more adrenaline to us during the coronavirus pandemic here, as the name implies, it’s a novel coronavirus, meaning it’s a new virus we have not really seen or studied before.

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“As such, as doctors, we don’t like being faced with a disease or an illness that we’ve not seen before, that we don’t know. One of the things we pride ourselves on is all this schooling and all this studying and reading these journals and keeping current with our practices so when we are put in that situation we know what to do. I’m not saying we don’t know what to do, but there’s so much that we’re learning about this as we go along, that adds this extra degree of adrenaline that I always say helps you because that adrenaline keeps you going when you’re tired and keeps you on your toes and keeps you sharp and keeps you honest. It’s definitely more of an adrenaline as a result of the unknowns that keep you focused on task than it is about the adrenaline rush, definitely.”

Dimitrijevski is a sports fan and often tells his students that at the end of good days and bad days at work, instead of cracking open a medical journal at home, he wants to grab a beer and watch sports on television. So he understands people wanting to know when we might return to some sort of normalcy and when sports can resume.

Dr. Trifun Dimitrijevski at the Detroit Grand Prix in 2019

“We’re definitely missing it, but we understand we’re at a moment in our lives where that has to be put on hold in order to deal with this problem,” he said. “All physicians talk about that in their careers, that there’s a defining moment that happens in terms of a case you faced or, in our case, a pandemic that defines our generation and what we do. I definitely believe that’s the case, at least for me, and I hope in my career hope I do not face another pandemic, but I have no control of that.

“We have not seen a pandemic on this scale, and all the epidemiologists, who certainly are more educated in this than I am, are comparing this to the 1918 flu pandemic. Certainly, we know we’re faced with a big challenge, and it’s our job to respond and that means putting what we love on hold until we get that under control, not so much just for our love of the sport, but more importantly for first and foremost, our society, the people we care for, our family and friends.”

Dimitrijevski said he is “cautiously optimistic” sports will return at some point this year. The Indianapolis 500 has moved from its traditional Memorial Day weekend date to Aug. 23, but the IndyCar series is still scheduled to begin June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Other events have moved to later in the year, but there has been no decision made about college football and the pro sports.

“This is such a fluid and dynamic and evolving process that we’re all hesitant to say, ‘Yeah, I think it’s feasible,’ or ‘No, I don’t think it’s feasible,’ because we don’t what the future is going to hold,” Dimitrijevski said. “We have models in place that are going to predict, but there are models in place that if we try to return to normalcy too fast, we may see a second spike in this, which then would cause a lot more damage and harm than by just staying put and riding this out as long as we have to ride it out.

“Part of me says I hope I’m dead wrong and we’re racing in June, but there’s also part of me that says it may be too early and we’ll have to see what these next several weeks have to hold. I wish I had the answers. All I know is we have to be careful, we have to social distance and be very optimistic but extremely cautious before we rush to think we’re back to normal or we can return back to normal.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis