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An NSMC doctor’s dispatch from the coronavirus front

By Jessica Benedetto, M.D.

In the lead-up to the Coronavirus surge on the North Shore, I was filled with dread, uncertainty, and anxiety. The plight of the doctors in Italy facing this pandemic was heartbreaking. The uncertainty was unbearable — would we have enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to care for our patients — and ourselves? What would it mean for my career? How would I avoid bringing this virus home to my family?

We had meeting after meeting to discuss preparedness. Plans were put in place to increase our medical beds, increase our ICUs, increase our ventilators. Many of us were asked to step up and care for the surge in critically ill patients. We were asked to help train other doctors who were taking on hospital-based roles from their typical jobs outside of the hospital. Things were changing daily, and it was hard to keep up. Would I be ready to tackle this?

And then, the patients came, and the numbers have risen rapidly. Some need ventilators, some a lot of oxygen. I remember feeling my heart pound as I went into those first rooms of COVID-19 patients. Was I putting on the gown correctly? Did I have my eye protection in place? I tried not to look nervous and instead to reassure my patients (and maybe myself) that we would take care of them.

My job is to keep vigilant and watch my patients closely. I call their families, who aren’t allowed to see their loved ones in the hospital. It is heartbreaking. I try to bridge the gap, learning as much as I can about my patients, so that they won’t feel so alone.

Normally, I work part-time to balance my personal with my professional life, but in the past month, I have accepted twice as many shifts as I typically do. The workload is bearable, though, because our community of doctors has stepped in. Primary care doctors, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, and endocrinologists have all volunteered to join us in the hospital ranks. They have brushed up on their general internal medicine skills and asked us for help when needed. The amount of positive energy and collaboration at our hospital is at an all-time high.

Susan Moynihan, M.D., Yuriy Levin, M.D., and Jessica Benedetto, M.D.

My initial fear and dread have turned into immense pride that I work at North Shore Medical Center. As I roll out of bed at sunrise, I feel grateful – first, because I haven’t contracted COVID-19 yet — and then, because I am part of an incredible team helping others to heal.

And then there are the nurses. They are my heroes. To adjust to the surge in patients, they have had to adjust their workflow tremendously, bundling their interactions with patients into discrete visits within the patient rooms. Balancing the need to do assessments, medications, IV care, glucose checks, etc., all while avoiding using too much protective gear has been a tremendous challenge. Along with the techs who provide crucial bedside assistance, the nurses are on the forefront of care.

Now, when I am in a COVID-19 patient’s room, I move the breakfast tray and help them open the orange juice because I know that the nurse has to limit visits into the room and may not be able to get to these tasks as readily as usual. If the nurse is there, and the patient needs a boost up on the bed, we do it together. Our health care teams are collaborating more than ever due to the pandemic. This is the silver lining.

A month ago, health care workers all looked different at the hospital. Doctors dressed in professional street clothes with a white coat and stethoscope. Nurses wore scrubs. Now we all look identical, wearing scrubs, scrub caps, N95 masks, goggles, face shields, gowns, and sneakers – all here serving the community. Despite what the press tells us, Partners Healthcare has stepped up providing us with the protective equipment we need. The local community has continued to donate supplies, food, energy teas, and water for us. There is positive energy flowing through our hospital that is unprecedented. We are all in this together, until the last COVID-19 patient goes home to family. On that day, we will celebrate, in unison.

Jessica Benedetto has been an internal medicine physician at NSMC for 12 years and works exclusively in the hospital caring for acutely ill patients. NSMC is now one of the busiest hospitals in the state for COVID-19 activity, including the large academic medical centers.