As COVID-19 cases swelled in U.S. cities earlier this year, hospitals and health care clinics ramped up resources and canceled elective procedures and routine patient visits. Some, like Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, opened new intensive care units in March to treat waves of critically ill, highly contagious patients.
“All were very sick, with multi-organ failure,” says pulmonologist Aaron Waxman, M.D., Ph.D. “A lot of these patients were in septic shock. Within a matter of days, they had stiff lungs. This was an epidemic of ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome).”
Dr. Waxman, director of Brigham and Women’s Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program, led one of seven ICU teams responsible for 21 patients each during the first three months of the pandemic.
Initially, each team spent at least 13 hours a day in the hospital. They started their rounds at 7 a.m., administering antibiotics, managing fluids, adjusting care plans. Many patients had to receive dialysis. Every three hours, the medical teams repeated rounds.
Each time they entered a patient room, they had to wear hats, masks, face shields and gowns. The protective gear was hot and sweaty, but it was worse for nurses, who had to spend more time in patient rooms, Dr. Waxman says.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the hospital weathered a brief period of personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. Each health care professional received one N95 mask a week, and the hospital temporarily ran out of certain types of gowns. Everyone had to wash and change before leaving the hospital.
“We were super vigilant about watching out for each other and not bringing any of that home,” says Dr. Waxman, who worried about spreading the virus to his wife and adult son.
In between rounds or after their shifts, many doctors checked in with their regular patients through televisits.
“I got the sense my patients were more worried about me,” Dr. Waxman says. “It was pretty touching.”
During the 12 weeks the PH clinic was closed for in-person visits, few patients reported serious problems. “Amazingly, they all did remarkably well. I would ask patients to take pictures of their ankles and legs to see if they had edema. We made sure they all had masks, knew how to keep them clean, wash their hands and stay away from people who were potentially infected.”
Dr. Waxman’s story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Pathlight, PHA’s quarterly magazine. Pathlight is a benefit of PHA membership. To read more inspirational PH stories and receive a copy of the magazine, join PHA.