Utah Physician Assistant On Caring For COVID-19 Patients In Queens
New York City is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and medical workers around the country are flocking there to help care for patients. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Jenna Malone, an Intermountain Healthcare Physician Assistant from Brighton, Utah. Malone is halfway through a two-week stint in a Queens hospital.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: How did you decide to volunteer to go to New York, one of the hardest hit areas?
Jenna Malone: That feeling of watchful waiting [in Utah] made me want to be more involved. Anytime there's a disaster, health care workers want to help. That's why we went into medicine.
CB: What have you experienced in your first week?
JM: I've been assigned to one of the newly created ICUs at NewYork-Presbyterian, and they essentially had to triple their number of ICU beds. They even were putting patient care areas into the cafeteria at one point during the peak.
Before going in, we all get suited up with what we call a “bunny suit.” It's sort of a plastic Tyvek head to toe suit that zips with a hood. We wear N95s or some people have respirators. We have a surgical paper mask that covers that. Some sort of eye protection. Some people have been wearing goggles, and then a full face shield typically, as well as double gloves.
CB: Does it get hot?
JM: It gets incredibly hot. In fact, I've heard our clerk calling and asking if the hospital can turn the temperature down because it is quite warm. The risk is always of cross contamination. If you touch something that has virus on it, you don't want to touch your face or eyes or nose.
CB: Has there been a moment this week that really brought the pandemic into focus for you?
JM: That moment has probably been in my interactions with a woman named Mirabelle. She runs around the ICUs all day every day. She has an iPad, and she connects via the iPad with family members of patients. And the patients are, for the most part, in drug-induced comas. So they're on sedation, and they’re, as far as we can tell, often unaware of what's going on. But for their family members, I think Mirabelle is the lifeline that lets them see and try to talk to their family member and have any connection — even for a few minutes each day — with their loved one. And I think her whole role for me represents all of the heartbreak of this disease for families who can't spend any time with their loved one.
CB: You've described being in the hospital right now as sort of a frenzy. It sounds like everybody's running from one place to another. Have you had some time to sit and reflect yourself on what you've seen?
JM: I have about a 20-minute walk to and from the hospital, and that's my best decompression time. The days are so full that there's really no time for reflection in the moment.
I think some of that is self-protective, as well. And that's certainly what I've seen with the care providers here, is there's focus on the work and that's where the focus needs to be. I think when the dust has settled, there will be a need for much reflection and a lot of healing.
CB: We've been hearing of the mental stress doctors are dealing with. What have you observed among your colleagues?
JM: Some of the ICU physicians express frustration. These are incredibly smart, driven individuals who are used to using data to make life and death decisions. And for the most part, they are able to make their patients better. With this disease, we don't have data. We don't know what works.
CB: How are you doing?
JM: I'm tired. But I feel really well supported by my friends and family and the people I work with at home and the people I'm working with here.
CB: Once this is over and you come back to Utah, what lessons do you think will stay with you?
JM: This hospital has been learning from this disease for a month. My hope is that the social distancing that we've done so effectively in Utah so far is really going to help prevent a surge. But if we do have a peak that outpaces our health care resources, I feel like the team that's here will come home with some tools that are going to be really, really useful to help care for our community.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews