Five Questions For: Eric Isaacs, MD

Eric Isaacs, MD

Eric Isaacs is an emergency physician practicing at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for the last 26 years. He co-chairs the hospital’s Ethics Committee and works as a medical student coach, a position created by the UCSF School of Medicine to teach medical students skills in professionalism, physical exam, and communication.

In addition to his love for tennis, Eric is an avid cyclist and skier. After tennis games, he can often be heard playing the blues on his guitar and mandolin. Eric and his wife Liz have 3 children and get only unconditional love from their dog, Remy. 

1.What guidance would you give tennis players on how to play safely during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I am a bit of a rule follower, so I would follow the rules that have been put forth in the community where you play. Additionally, we can play safely using a commonsense approach. Here is my personal checklist:

  • * Confirm that your opponent or partner does not have cold symptoms or a fever.
  • * Wear a mask as much as you can. Not all masks work well during exercise, but they do exist. I found a washable mask I like for exercise and bought six of them. (I wear two masks for nine hours straight at work; I can wear a mask for 90 minutes playing tennis.)
  • * Put a bottle of hand sanitizer in your tennis bag for use before, during, and after your game.
  • * Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes without sanitizing your hands first.
  • * Bring your own water bottle, towels, and don’t share snacks (except if you live together).
  • * Avoid directly touching water fountains, fences, gates, or benches if possible. A towel or sweat band can be used instead. 
  • * Coordinate with your opponent or doubles partner to make sure you keep six feet apart.
  • * Pause before changing sides of the court, allowing plenty of room for others to pass.
  • * Walk far away from other players and face the fence when grabbing a drink or snack during a changeover
  • * Celebrate a good point!! I “click” racket ends with my doubles partner after a good play. Extending rackets with outstretched arms provides plenty of space. 

2.How would you weigh the benefits and risks of playing tennis during the pandemic?

For all of us, COVID has caused great stress and affected our ability to socialize and exercise. There is certainly a greater risk of getting COVID and spreading it to others when leaving the house, but I know my physical and mental health requires exercise, stress reduction, and human contact. I think tennis is a great way to satisfy those needs, so long as it can be done in a responsible and safe way.  

Eric Isaacs, MD

3.What has your experience been like as a frontline health worker during the pandemic?

I started my training as an emergency physician early in the AIDS epidemic and I am struck by the memories of fear and anxiety that we felt at that time. I have memories of doing procedures in “space suits” because we didn’t know if AIDS could be transmitted during surgery. I remember the fear I felt after my first needlestick, worrying about my own health and about passing disease to loved ones at home. 

Now, almost 30 years later, I am seeing fear, anxiety, and anticipation dominate my mindset and actions again. But, living, working, and caring for patients during this pandemic has felt different because of the increased burden of social isolation. While I am willing to accept the personal risk of my work, I worry about bringing COVID home to my family. Friends and neighbors were hesitant to have my children come to their house. I figured it was just a matter of time until we experienced the same horror as hospitals on the east coast. I even accepted the offer from close friends to stay in their vacant studio apartment, living isolated from my family for about six weeks. 

From March through May, there was a fog of angst that hung in the emergency department air, each patient being met with some hesitancy not knowing if they were going to be the one that spread the disease to our staff. We were tuned into patients with fever and cough, but we kept finding other patients coming in testing positive for COVID. Pedestrians suffering trauma, kitchen workers, a grandmother with a headache. As a physician, I am always looking to improve and change my practice, but it is not usually to protect myself. I remember the room and patient that provided me the reality check of COVID. In early March, I strode into a patient’s exam room after reading that she had knee pain after falling at home. I didn’t think I needed a mask; she had knee pain. I pride myself on my ability to rapidly establish rapport with my patients and I warmly introduced myself and greeted this elderly patient holding her hand as we began to talk. I focused on her knee at first, and then finally got around to asking how she fell. “Sweetheart, I have been having fevers for the last 5 days…I fell because I am feeling so weak.”  “OH.” 

I often tell people that emergency medicine is a “team sport,” likening some of our patient encounters to an Indy race car pit stop. We rush in to surround our patient, everyone knows their job and does it well, we do what we need to do, we get the patient on to their next destination, and then we debrief together. We, the doctors, nurses, medical assistants, x-ray techs, pharmacists, clerks, and paramedics, are a close-knit group. Over the years, we celebrate birthdays and holidays, work milestones, and comfort and support each other after tragedy. In a way, we are lucky that we come to work during the strictest lockdowns and are able to interact with each other in person. Unfortunately, we now eat our meals alone, sitting at solo tables often separated by plexiglass. No more potlucks, no more celebrations, no more hugs or sharing of family pictures. One of our key coping methods used to maintain our resilience has been taken away in this time of tragedy. This is the biggest difference from thirty years ago, and it is very difficult. The isolation is very hard.

The good news is that distribution of the vaccine provides hope and relief. I received my two doses of vaccine and I am told that all staff at our hospital have been offered the vaccine as well. We still have a long way to go to get everyone in the country vaccinated, but I am beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

4.What role has tennis played in your life, e.g., when did you learn, have you played competitively, how often do you play?

When I was 9 or 10, my parents would go to the local public park in Los Angeles and play tennis while I was on the playground with my sister. As time went on, we would join them on the court to hit the ball at the end of their hour. Eventually, my family joined a local tennis club, and that was where I really learned to play. My father would wake me up at 6:30 am on Saturdays and Sundays, so that we could play an hour of singles together before the weekend doubles games started. I must have looked like a zombie as a teenager on those early weekend mornings. The doubles became more social as the morning wore on and I learned my court etiquette there. I didn’t argue calls. I complimented my opponent. I did play in junior leagues, but needless to say, I was not a great competitive tennis player. 

I had quite a number of years away from tennis, as I was in medical school and specialty training, followed by early career aspirations and a young family. But, in recent years, I have rediscovered and prioritized the things that bring me joy, including tennis. I rejoined the USTA and started playing league tennis again, although COVID has put a pause on that. My work schedule is unusual, allowing me to play tennis during the day. So, I have a group of energetic retired friends who are available, and I play with them 1-2 days a week, even now, during COVID. I am excited to report that I have discovered the competitive edge that I lacked as a teenager, but I am still very polite.

5.Where do you usually play tennis (including public courts). Have you played at GGP and what are you looking forward to at the new Goldman Tennis Center in GGP?

I was a member of the Presidio YMCA when we first moved to San Francisco. I played on the Presidio courts for several years and would play at GGP during league matches and the occasional game with friends. When I decided to reprioritize tennis, I joined the Bay Club and play most of the time at the Gateway. During COVID, I have been playing on the SF public courts and have really enjoyed getting to know the courts around the city again. 

I live in the Sunset and I am very excited about the new Goldman Tennis Center being so close to home. I hope that new players will be inspired and have opportunities to learn tennis. I hope that the new tennis center will rekindle a passion for those who have left it behind. I hope the tennis center can act as a hub and be a model to provide opportunities to expand the accessibility of tennis throughout San Francisco. And, I hope the Goldman Tennis Center can be a home away from home to greet friends, relax, and “kick a little ass.”