For Ian Fagan, MD, a hospitalist and associate medical director for general internal medicine Inpatient Services at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, hospitalist shifts are a normal part of his job. But he had to give them up during the surge to focus on planning, management, and especially scheduling other doctors, with sufficient backups needed to cover last minute changes. Dr. Fagan did that by using the existing pool of hospitalist staff, physicians who were reassigned from other specialties, agency staff, military medical personnel, and volunteer doctors who flew in from around the country to help. He also worked 10- to 12-hour days for 36 consecutive days.
The impact of disparities in access to care in New York City was reflected in the greater demand for care in the hospitals in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. “With fewer patients and more hospital beds in Manhattan, we had the capacity to share our beds,” Dr. Fagan said. “It was so amazing to me how quickly we could move patients from one hospital to another. We started accepting up to 40 transfers a day. But hey, we were still really busy.”
Bellevue is the nation’s oldest public hospital. “We care for the homeless, for immigrants, and we don’t ask questions. That’s our mission. I’m so proud to work here, and so grateful,” Dr. Fagan said. “If someone is undocumented or without insurance, I will give them exactly the same care. We stepped up in a big way to care for people of New York, but we’ve always been there for them – and we were there for them during the COVID surge.”
The hospitals in the system also worked together in ways Dr. Fagan had never seen. “It helped to have a central command structure with a bird’s eye view from above the level of individual hospitals, to organize and see which hospitals could step up. It’s good to have the data to put it in perspective,” he said. The system also utilized a temporary low-acuity medical center set up by NYCH+H on Roosevelt Island, as well as field hospitals organized at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“At Bellevue we tried to stay ready, with the ability to turn former hospital units that were being used as offices back to beds. We always had three units lined up that were fully ready to convert. For example, I was medical director of the preop clinic and one day they gave us 24 hours to pack everything and move out. Three days later, it was a 24-bed unit. We also built a more robust rapid response and code team,” he said.
“It was hard for me not to take hospitalist shifts, because my identity is being a doctor. I eventually came to terms with the importance of the role that I was doing every day. I felt I could protect my colleagues, and if they were having an emotional day, to give them the opportunity to talk to someone. I also did the onboarding, one-on-one, of the new doctors.”
As the crisis in New York City has ebbed, Dr. Fagan was recently able to again take a week of clinical service. “The first day back on the floor I felt that I had forgotten everything. But by the end of the day, I thought, ‘Okay, I do know how to do this, after all.’ Census is down here. It’s quiet. That’s good. We need it now,” he said.
“I think the hardest moment for me was when the head nurse on our trauma unit, Ernesto DeLeon, known to everybody here, died of COVID in our ICU in April,” Dr. Fagan said. When Mr. DeLeon died, 100 hospital personnel gathered in the halls outside the room to pay their respects. “There had been a palpable fear in our lives – and this showed us that the fear was real. Ernesto was the first person I knew well who died, who acquired COVID at work doing what we’re all doing. We haven’t lost any doctors yet, but when this nurse died, we allowed ourselves to realize that this is personal. In that moment, we needed to allow ourselves to be human.”
Joan Curcio, MD, associate director of medicine at Elmhurst Hospital, said Elmhurst was where the story started for New York City and for NYCH+H. “I trained here and have spent my entire career at this hospital. It came to feel like what a battleground must be like, with things coming at you from every direction,” she said. “It was overwhelming in ways I could not have foreseen. I had seen videos from Italy [an early COVID-19 epicenter], but until it happened here, it was just hard to process.”
Things started slowly, with a few patients with severe acute respiratory distress syndrome and a 5- to 7-day turnaround to get results of their viral infection tests. “By week 2, a greater number of patients from our clinics and testing sites were filtering through the emergency department. Then hundreds.”
The normal occupancy rate for the department of medicine at Elmhurst is 110-115%, which typically means full beds plus patients in the emergency department. “We started to grow to 160, then 180, and then a peak of 250% of occupancy. We took over a rehab surgery floor, then a 35-bed surgery and hospice floor, which went to full capacity just like that,” she said. The number of non–critical care service teams increased to 20, working with redeployed staff, volunteers, military, and agency personnel, while ICU beds increased from 20 to 105.
“We were dealing with a much higher acuity level and enduring emotional turmoil with families, trying to carve out time to call them after our shift was over,” Dr. Curcio explained. Elmhurst developed a call-in hotline and a daily call-out service for families. Technology was mobilized to provide video visits and new systems were designed for isolation and for PPE distribution and use.
“I just felt that I couldn’t get everything done. I felt continually overwhelmed, and it didn’t matter how much time I took. I never felt I was able to give enough to anybody in any area, which was hard to take,” Dr. Curcio said. “But I still felt a sense of purpose and that I was making a difference – thanks to lots of support from the central office.”
Patient volume at Elmhurst is now down, lower than Dr. Curcio has ever seen it. “One of the main issues right now, moving forward, is ‘how do we function in a post-crisis mode?’” she said. The process of transitioning back to non-COVID-19 care will be complex. “When we clear a floor and clean it to go back to being a cold [COVID-19-negative] unit, it’s a whole different level of cleaning that takes 7 days.”
One moment that was particularly jarring for Dr. Curcio occurred while she was giving a tour of the hospital to visiting military medical personnel. “We went into the emergency department and I turned around and looked into a shower room, which was full of body bags. They were all full.”
But the experience has also been inspiring. “People gave their all without complaint. We hospitalists, and all those recruited to act as hospitalists, essentially took responsibility for the COVID response,” she said. “This was, hopefully, the experience of a lifetime as a medical professional. I wouldn’t want to ever experience something as daunting as this again.”
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