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Dispatches From the Front Line

When COVID-19 raged through New York earlier this year, Stony Brook University Hospital (SBUH) essential employees aggressively worked around the clock to save their patients. On TV, in the newspapers and on social media, the public learned of harrowing and heartwarming stories that reflected how our community united to meet the crisis.

Less widely known are the personal tales of Hospital employees — who had trained their whole careers to face crises but were nevertheless stunned by this one — and how they dealt with unimaginable challenges.      

“So much happened in such a short amount of time, it is almost unbelievable looking back on it now,” said Dawn Teer, a 20-year veteran in Respiratory Therapy who was on the front lines of Stony Brook’s response. “We worried that we wouldn’t have enough ventilators and equipment for the patients. It was so overwhelming when we counted up patients and supplies every few hours. Our directors were able to secure enough equipment to never have to share ventilators or any respiratory equipment between patients, which was an amazing feat.”

Once the crisis kicked into high gear in March, respiratory therapists answered three times the daily number of rapid response calls as patients deteriorated at an alarming pace and required mechanical ventilation. All 68 respiratory therapists at the Hospital cared for coronavirus patients in the Hospital’s intensive care units at various times on rotating shifts, because every ICU had COVID-19 patients except the Neonatal ICU.

“There were days when we just ran from rapid response to rapid response,” Teer said, referring to the code for a patient whose condition is deteriorating rapidly. “Patients were being intubated and placed on mechanical ventilation one after the next. It was exhausting and terrifying, but we didn’t have time to stop. The patients were alone and scared, which was heartbreaking. We tried to reassure them and tell them they would be okay, but we really didn’t know. It was a horrible feeling and we didn’t really process any of it until it started to slow down. I think this will live with many of us for a long time.”

Maureen Turner, director of the Department of Respiratory Care and the Department of Pulmonary Function at SBUH, said what will stay with the healthcare workers most is seeing patients at their sickest who were unable to have family present due to visitation restrictions.

But having positive memories of patient care helped fuel their determination to keep going, such as “seeing a few of the sickest patients ride out the virus and suddenly turn the corner and recover,” Turner said. “These were people they had been taking care of for weeks, and to see them get discharged to waiting families happy to see their loved ones finally made some sense out of this horrendous situation.”

Another challenge for Hospital staff was seeing their co-workers contract the virus. More than 400 employees became ill from the disease from March through June. “Seeing a few of our own colleagues getting sick from disease and getting hospitalized was a painful experience,” added Sadia Abbasi, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. “Every day we asked ourselves, ‘What am I going to experience today? How many of my patients will die of this disease?’”

The same fears extended to the possibility of infecting their own loved ones at home. “It was very stressful watching our colleagues get the virus,” Teer said. “My husband and I worried we would bring something home to our family, as we are both working in healthcare. I have autoimmune illnesses myself, and I just kept faith that if I was diligent with precautions I would be okay.”

That concern didn’t stop her from caring for her patients to the best of her ability at all times.

“We did have to adapt our practices to pause for a moment to protect ourselves before entering a room, even though it’s in our nature to run in and put the patients’ needs first,” she said. 

Motivation From Within

Throughout the crisis, a powerful motivator for Teer and her colleagues was how the entire Hospital staff worked together.

“Our department really stepped up, and I am so proud of that,” Teer said. “We all supported each other and stood beside each other every step of the way. Another success is how all the disciplines in the Hospital worked together. We all really looked out for each other and tried to help each other as much as we could. It brought us all together and made us appreciate each other in a new way.”

For instance, Turner said, “We worked with Anesthesia on a safe and consistent process for intubating and transporting patients to the ICUs so as not to infect others and spread the virus.”

“Our institution’s leadership provided comprehensive support,” Abbasi added, “including adequate PPE [personal protective equipment], monitoring and supervision of infection control, guidance with updated testing and treatment protocols, and attention to staff’s emotional and mental well-being. This helped maintain morale and productivity of our healthcare team.”

And beyond these necessary practical matters, they also lent each other emotional help.

“We received a lot of support from the staff, families and friends, and that meant so much to us,” Turner said. “I will always admire the respiratory therapists for the care they gave and remember the respiratory therapy staff for working hard and working together. A lot was asked of them and of their own families, and they all rose to the occasion.”

For her part, Teer said that having the support of the community, their families and their friends definitely helped when they were at their lowest. “It really helped lift our spirits when things seemed so hopeless. It gave us strength to keep fighting for our patients and their families. I am forever grateful to everyone for lifting us up and making us believe we would get through it.”

If you would like to read more about how the entire SBU community worked together during the crisis, please see these COVID-related stories on our SBU News website.

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