What a Utah pulmonologist learned from treating New York COVID-19 patients

As Dixie Harris, MD, watched the global COVID-19 situation unfold this year, she couldn't help but keep a close eye on New York, one of the hardest-hit states. The critical care pulmonologist, who works at Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare, has colleagues in New York and wanted to join the coronavirus fight there.

She got her chance to do so in April when Intermountain created two response teams to deploy to the New York City area to help hospitals facing surges in COVID-19 cases and staffing shortages. The two teams — made up of 100 Intermountain healthcare workers, including physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other workers — were deployed to assist New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health and New York City-based NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Harris was part of the first team that left Salt Lake City April 14 to help workers at Northwell Health. For 15 days, she primarily worked night shifts at Northwell Health's Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y., allowing other critical care physicians to rest and sleep at night.

Dr. Harris expected to see a lot of busy intensive care units at Southside but seeing the situation in-person was a different experience, Dr. Harris told Becker's Hospital Review in a recent interview.

"When you see it in-person, it becomes very impactful," she said. "When you see a hospital that has multiplied its ICU beds by five, then you see the little things that are stressed and in short supply."

She specifically noticed how Southside multiplied the nursing staff by bringing in nurses from other areas of the hospital to work alongside ICU nurses, enabling the ICU nurses to see more patients. Southside also turned the hospital board room into a medical unit.

The hospital's work amid the surge "was everything from [ensuring access to] basic supplies to [ensuring enough] ICU beds to creative staffing models, manning up current staff," said Dr. Harris.

During her time at Southside, she said she was reminded of the value of nursing and respiratory therapy as well as how lonely COVID-19 is as a disease. COVID-19 patients could not have visitors as they received care in the hospital.

"You're in this ICU and I could see the anxiety in patients' faces," Dr. Harris said. "Everyone [around the patient] is wearing masks."

She said the loneliness patients feel also takes an emotional toll on physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other workers. 

"When you see patients by themselves without family or loved ones by their side, you will give some of yourself to meet the emotional needs of the patients," she said.

"We as a healthcare industry have learned so much from these first experiences. We have learned a lot about how to take care of patients with COVID-19," Dr. Harris added.

She also noticed administrators were consistently present throughout the hospital grounds, which she said helped solve problems quickly in real time and boost the morale of workers.

In return for the work of Intermountain employees in April, Northwell Health and NewYork-Presbyterian will also try to support Intermountain as much as possible when Utah faces its own surge of COVID-19 patients, according to Intermountain.


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