The memories I have from the few nights spent in the adult pop-up cardiac intensive care unit are pouring in as I sit down to tell this story. I am a pediatric hospitalist at Columbia University NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. I usually take care of sick, hospitalized children. However, in these extraordinary times, I have joined an army of colleagues taking care of adult patients with COVID-19.
Almost all these patients had tracheostomies connected to ventilators, as well as acute-on-chronic cardiac issues. They were often delirious and unable to speak, and always alone. I was happy to help our adult colleagues, but I was also afraid. I was scared to make a mistake that could be detrimental to my patient, even though I knew well that ICU residents, fellows, and attendings were just a phone call away.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland, initially too small compared with her environment, and the next minute hunched, giant, and still clearly displaced. Except I was not dreaming or watching a movie. There was no white rabbit to chase. The situation was serious and emotionally challenging. I imagined that each patient was the dearest member of my family: my mother, my father, my aunt or uncle. I took pleasure in sharing smiles while asking the patients how they were feeling, and I touched their hands, even though much of my face was covered and there were gloves on my hands.
The year 2020 has been surreal. People have had to find their own way of pushing through the unknown and unexpected. For a start, I would never in a million years have imagined using phrases like pop-up ICU.1 I was signing an admission note for a 90-year-old lady with acute-on-chronic congestive heart failure and acute respiratory hypoxemic failure and there, at the bottom of the note, was my name, followed by an odd remark: “pediatric hospital medicine.” That is what happened in New York City in 2020: Many unexpected events took place.
This article represents a virtual conversation with three other pediatric hospitalists who, under different sets of circumstances, did the same thing: took care of adult patients. I hope that the answers to the questions I asked make you pause, reflect, and learn from the experiences described.
Would you describe the usual environment where you practice pediatric hospital medicine?
Julie Dunbar, MD: I am a full-time pediatric hospitalist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, a tertiary care academic children’s hospital in the Bronx. A typical day on service involves staffing up to 14 patients, up to 21 years old, on a teaching service with residents and physician assistants. We normally staff the hospital in two shifts – day and evening – until 11:00 at night. We are situated at the heart of a medically underserved area, and our hospital system cares for about one-third of the total population of the Bronx.
L. Nell Hodo, MD: I work at Kravis Children’s Hospital at the Mount Sinai Hospital, in Manhattan at the juncture of the Upper East Side and Harlem. Our usual hospital medicine environment is the general ward/floor in a nested children’s hospital within an adult hospital. We have about 32 non-ICU beds, and the patients are managed by a combination of hospitalists, general pediatricians, and specialist attendings. All patients are on resident teams. We have a comanagement model in which the primary attending for surgical patients is always a pediatric attending (hospitalist or specialist).
Avital M. Fischer, MD: NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital is a quaternary care center – where children from the area receive subspecialty care – as well as, functionally, a community hospital for the Washington Heights area. Therefore, we always have an interesting mix of general pediatric inpatient medicine including patients with complex medical conditions, rare diseases, postoperative conditions, and undiagnosed illnesses on our wards. We are a children’s hospital, connected to a larger adult hospital system. Pediatric hospitalists cover two pediatric wards, team-staffed by residents, and a progressive care unit, staffed by nurse practitioners. There is usually evening coverage until 11 p.m.