Life on the Frontline of the COVID-19 Crisis

Ever wonder what it’s like to work in healthcare during the pandemic? As the coronavirus raged through South Florida earlier this year and area hospitals experienced a surge of patients with COVID-19, healthcare workers on the frontlines faced unprecedented challenges.

Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director and chief of cardiology, Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute

Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director and chief of cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, hosted a candid and moving “Resource Live” program on Facebook on July 17th. The program, highlights of which are also available in this Baptist HealthTalk podcast, featured a panel of physicians and leaders from Baptist Health South Florida who shared what they’re seeing and feeling on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis.

Samer Fahmy, M.D., chief medical officer, Boca Raton Regional Hospital

Referring to the current surge of COVID-19 patients, Samer Fahmy, M.D., chief medical officer at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, said the increase is putting even greater pressure on hospital staff. “The ER that wasn’t full a month ago is full with COVID patients now,” Dr. Fahmy said. “One COVID unit in in many of our hospitals has turned into two, three or four COVID units just to try to manage the number of people that are coming in here requiring hospitalization.”

Dr.Fahmy noted that taking care of patients who have COVID is harder than it is for other patients. “Everything we do in the hospital has gotten harder, notjust on the COVID units but throughout the whole hospital because of the precautions that we have to have in place to protect staff and patients. Things take longer, things are harder to do because of the PPE [personal protective equipment] that has to be taken on and off for each patient.”

Yvonne Johnson, M.D., chief medical officer, South Miami Hospital

Yvonne Johnson, M.D., chief medical officer for South Miami Hospital, said that the hospital has three to five times the number of COVID-19 patients now than it did back in May. The current surge in has forced Baptist Health to restrict visitors in all of its facilities in order to protect patients and staff, a policy which Dr. Johnson acknowledged has been challenging for both patients and families.

“It’s a difficult issue, particularly when the patient is at the end of life or very sick,” Dr. Johnson said. “But I take my hat off to our nurses and how much they communicate with the families that are at home, whether it’s through phone calls or through iPads.”

Ana Cabrera, assistant vice president and interim chief nursing officer, Homestead Hospital

According to Ana Cabrera, assistant vice president and interim chief nursing officer at Homestead Hospital, Baptist Health Foundation donated dozens of iPads to all eleven of the health system’s hospitals to help facilitate contact between patients and their families. “The families, especially, really appreciate the effort and time it has taken [for our staff]to connect with them and let them know how their loved ones are doing,” Ms.Cabrera said.

Rachel Evers, MSN, director of surgical services at Baptist Hospital, added that families should know that their loved ones are never alone. The nurses and the frontline providers will not allow that,” she said. “No one here is alone. We will step in and be there for you when you cannot be here.”

As for the pandemic’s emotional toll on her colleagues, Dr.Johnson spoke of the commitment doctors and nurses feel. “They are comingtogether and taking care of people at the exact same level that we would beable to, no matter what. They are giving of themselves all day every day. They’re exhausted. They’rementally fatigued. It takes so much time – not just seeing this overwhelmingnumber of patients, but also getting in and out of their PPE – it’s just verydaunting.”

Rachel Evers, MSN, director of surgical services, Baptist Hospital

Ms.Evers said she wished people could feel and see and understand what healthcareworkers go through every day because it’s so emotionally draining. “But this isa calling for us, it goes deeper than a job or a profession,” she said. “Wewill always be here for you. We will go the great distance. We will be yourloved one when they can’t be here. We will fight for you when you cannot fightand we will pour everything from our heart into making sure that you getbetter.”

Ms.Cabrera said she unwinds at home by spending time with her family, gettingoutdoors, going to the beach when they can – whatever she can do to disconnectfor a little while. “But really, I spend most of my time worried about my staffand how to get them through this,” she said.

Asfor the impact of COVID-19 on their personal lives? “You work long hours, you compartmentalizethe feelings that you have here, and you don’t want to talk about it when yougo home because you’ve talked about it all day long and it’s justoverwhelming,” Ms.Evers said. You leanon your family more, too, she added, but even that can be more challenging inthe age of the coronavirus. “You have a new routine when you go home – you haveto take a shower, put on fresh clothes before you hug your child, before youhug your husband.”

Askedby the program’s host, Dr. Fialkow, what they need from the public, Dr. Johnsonreplied, “I think our doctors are really disheartened by the fact that there’sstill controversy about wearing a mask and there are community members who arenot social distancing.”

Dr.Fahmy echoed Dr. Johnson’s concern: “We are not doing a good job as a communityresponding to [the pandemic],” he said. “We are putting a lot of pressure onour hospitals, we’re putting a lot of undue stress on our nurses and ourdoctors and our staff. We need people out there to listen to us when we say youneed to social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face –all these simple things can make a difference.”

Regardingthe efficacy of masks, Dr. Johnson said that masks work and they work mosteffectively when everyone is wearing one. “Studies show that if both people arewearing a mask and one of them has a disease, there’s a very low risk oftransmitting the disease to the other person,” Dr. Johnson said. “According tothe CDC, if 95% of us were wearing masks, within four to six weeks we would beback to a point where our community could open up again and do it in a safeway.”

Withthe added stress of caring for patients in a pandemic, there are also somebright spots, however. According to Ms. Cabrera, the most gratifying aspect ofall this is seeing a COVID-19 patient discharged from the hospital and reunitedwith their family. “That’s the best part of our day, being able to discharge apatient who has really been resilient and brave to go through such a longhospitalization.”

Concerned you may have coronavirus?
Use our online Coronavirus Assessment tool or call our COVID-19 hotline, 1-833-MYBAPTIST (833-692-2784). To see a doctor on your phone from the comfort and safety of your home, download Baptist Health Care On Demand.

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