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 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.
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, not just 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 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.”
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 coming together and taking care of people at the exact same level that we would be able to, no matter what. They are giving of themselves all day every day. They’re exhausted. They’re mentally fatigued. It takes so much time – not just seeing this overwhelming number of patients, but also getting in and out of their PPE – it’s just very daunting.”
Ms. Evers said she wished people could feel and see and understand what healthcare workers go through every day because it’s so emotionally draining. “But this is a calling for us, it goes deeper than a job or a profession,” she said. “We will always be here for you. We will go the great distance. We will be your loved one when they can’t be here. We will fight for you when you cannot fight and we will pour everything from our heart into making sure that you get better.”
Ms. Cabrera said she unwinds at home by spending time with her family, getting outdoors, going to the beach when they can – whatever she can do to disconnect for a little while. “But really, I spend most of my time worried about my staff and how to get them through this,” she said.
As for the impact of COVID-19 on their personal lives? “You work long hours, you compartmentalize the feelings that you have here, and you don’t want to talk about it when you go home because you’ve talked about it all day long and it’s just overwhelming,” Ms. Evers said. You lean on your family more, too, she added, but even that can be more challenging in the age of the coronavirus. “You have a new routine when you go home – you have to take a shower, put on fresh clothes before you hug your child, before you hug your husband.”
Asked by the program’s host, Dr. Fialkow, what they need from the public, Dr. Johnson replied, “I think our doctors are really disheartened by the fact that there’s still controversy about wearing a mask and there are community members who are not social distancing.”
Dr. Fahmy echoed Dr. Johnson’s concern: “We are not doing a good job as a community responding to [the pandemic],” he said. “We are putting a lot of pressure on our hospitals, we’re putting a lot of undue stress on our nurses and our doctors and our staff. We need people out there to listen to us when we say you need to social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face – all these simple things can make a difference.”
Regarding the efficacy of masks, Dr. Johnson said that masks work and they work most effectively when everyone is wearing one. “Studies show that if both people are wearing a mask and one of them has a disease, there’s a very low risk of transmitting the disease to the other person,” Dr. Johnson said. “According to the CDC, if 95% of us were wearing masks, within four to six weeks we would be back to a point where our community could open up again and do it in a safe way.”
With the added stress of caring for patients in a pandemic, there are also some bright spots, however. According to Ms. Cabrera, the most gratifying aspect of all this is seeing a COVID-19 patient discharged from the hospital and reunited with their family. “That’s the best part of our day, being able to discharge a patient who has really been resilient and brave to go through such a long hospitalization.”
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 .