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Resident Perspective: Who is “Essential”?

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Friday, March 27th

I’m not having any symptoms at all at this point, really itching to get back to work. All residents have been instructed to check their temperatures before and after every shift since last week, in the hopes of catching any early signs of infection. We were not supplied any thermometers by the program, local drug stores are all sold out, and checking online the cheapest thermometers that will arrive in fewer than 4 days are all over $50. Luckily, I have my son’s infant forehead thermometer but I’m pretty sure doesn’t really work—I use it anyway and consistently have a temperature below 95 degrees, whatever that’s worth. I hadn’t felt feverish so I continued to go in to work at the hospital.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-congratulatory posts on social media from those in healthcare, selfies with a mask on, a team posing for a picture in all their protective gear, etc. For the most part it’s pretty benign but important stuff—reminding people to wash hands and stay home. The other intention is to self-promote and remind others they’re putting themselves at risk for the greater good. A troubling type of post I’ve been seeing is from providers (often not directly taking care of any COVID patients) excited and proud at the prospect for the medical community to come together to defeat this invisible foe. Maybe these sentiments are posted because morale is low and physician burnout is even higher than typical at this time? Bully for those that go into the fight ready, willing, and able. This mentality seems to say that as healthcare providers we should all rush to the frontlines as it’s a commendable action. I suspect many people not working in healthcare may not realize that residents are not really given a choice whether to participate or engage with high-risk coronavirus patients.

Residents are at an even higher risk of burning out at this time because all “non-essential” employees are not permitted in the hospital and they are limiting the number of employees for the essential roles as a way to decrease overall exposure. Medical students typically make discharge appointments, obtain outside hospital records, and other vital tasks—but medical students are no longer permitted in the hospitals because in many ways they’re paying for the privilege of being there. That topic in and of itself could be another blog post.  Gone or restricted hours also apply to many case managers, social workers, patient transporters, nutritionists, physical therapists, drug or alcohol rehab representatives, etc. The burden of caring for patients and providing a safe discharge now falls more squarely on the remaining, smaller medical teams, which includes residents (and more specifically the interns—first year residents). This is time-consuming and no doubt will hasten burnout. In our program we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to take certain measures to mitigate this, like shorter duration spent on COVID teams for residents, but we may not have that luxury in the coming weeks.

Is this what we signed up for as trainees? My institution for now has been remarkable in being able to accommodate residents that are particularly vulnerable or have vulnerable household members; others may not be so lucky. Hospital administrations have to make the decision as to who to put in harm’s way. It’s not always cut-and-dry—should we protect older attendings or younger trainees? Is the duty to provide the best care for these current patients or to minimize exposure of budding physicians who will be practicing for decades to come? We have no idea if there are any long-term repercussions to the lungs or any other organ systems in people with asymptomatic coronavirus, and they may confer a higher rate of complications not seen for years or decades—we just don’t know. The vast majority of residents and clinicians in Internal Medicine are very hesitant to jump right in, and understandably so. Initially no med students, interns, or residents were to take care of COVID patients. As the epidemic grew into a pandemic more and more hands needed to be on deck. But still, the decision regarding which specialties will be taking care of these patients is growing. The public may not realize it either, but some residents and even attendings from subspecialties that don’t have much clinical patient exposure (e.g. Radiology) may have to dust off their stethoscope and start taking care of loved ones in your hospital.

Similarly to reports about physicians having to decide which patients get a ventilator, we are also making the decision as to which providers get greater amounts of exposure, which is a morbid endeavor. In Philadelphia, we’re fortunate enough that we haven’t had the same patient burden as New York so it hasn’t been all-hands-on-deck, but we may have to start asking which residents can handle more exposure than others, sooner rather than later.  Does taking care of an elderly family member, or a child at home come into consideration? What about providers with immune system issues? Where does my duty to provide for my patients trump my duty to keep my family’s risk of exposure at a minimum? Is it moral to ask a young, healthy, single resident to have repeated exposure or is it better to spread it out over several residents but lessen their daily exposure?

Although I personally hope to continue to be at or near the front lines, I understand those that are in a compromised position, and they shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to protect themselves or their family. There is no portion of the Hippocratic oath that implicitly or explicitly states that physicians have a duty to patients above their own safety. This is a nuanced situation that doesn’t have a blueprint in place. There are many features that as a society we’re having to figure out in real-time, which is just adding to our collective anxiety.

Healthcare workers are put in an awkward situation in these times. We need to be discussing this openly, with transparency about the treatment of healthcare workers, especially nurses and residents. How to improve the healthcare system is an important topic that hopefully will not be able to be ignored after we pass the emergency of the pandemic. It will not be easy to address this because the goals of the industry are not aligned with the goals of the public or those providing care. Even though we’re in the midst of the pandemic it’s a beneficial practice to reflect and think about the way we can improve the safety and efficacy of those delivering care.

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Resident Perspective

I was encouraged by my wife to keep a journal for thoughts and feelings surrounding the developing coronavirus pandemic because I may be able to offer a unique perspective as a resident in medicine who is also a new parent and attempting to overcome fear of the unknown and what’s to come. I will try to update as frequently as I am able.

Monday March 23rd 2020

I found out that the Attending Physician I had been working with all last week and who was coughing during rounds was getting tested for coronavirus last night in the emergency department. I can convince myself I’m having symptoms of fatigue, sore throat and maybe a headache but I’ve also been working in the hospital for almost four weeks straight and this could just be general exhaustion mixed with a touch of seasonal allergies. I try not to think about it too much.

I haven’t been wearing any masks or other personal protective equipment around the hospital yet. At this point I feel like we are still in the nascent stages of the impending unknown so wearing a mask right now seems premature. The practice isn’t mandatory but I see more and more random staff in the hallways with facemasks on, many of whom aren’t clinicians which is a greater indication that I should probably get on board. Every now and then I’ll check a supply closet or outside a patient’s room to see what the surgical mask inventory is like. There are constant rumors floating around that, like the N95 facemasks, other equipment will be locked up and parsed out by a charge nurse on an “as needed basis”. If a run-on-the-banks situation were to occur, I want to make sure I hit the sweet spot where I don’t contribute too much to the hysteria but ensure I’ve got a mask without having to fight for scraps. I’ll continue to assess the situation.

Meanwhile, I observe more PAPRs (Powered Air-Purifying Respirator—special protective equipment) next to rooms on the wards, awaiting their donning by newly trained hands. They’ll be used for all COVID patients but since there aren’t any confirmed as of yet in our hospital, the purpose is to be used by all COVID “rule-outs” for now–those that are being tested and don’t have results back. We have a three to five day turnaround for test results right now, meaning we simply don’t know if the virus is already in our presence. The increasing numbers of PAPRs seen daily act as a surrogate for the proximity of the disease to Philadelphia and as a gauge for the level of concern amongst residents.

Over the last several days quite literally every discussion between residents in the hospital is about the coronavirus. Either discussing potential treatments; rumors as to what’s going on in China, Italy, or New York; sending memes or chatting about our trepidation and general anxiety that has gripped the entire hospital. Even when seeing my patients, every TV seems to be tuned into the news, all of which are giving up-to-the-minute global figures alternating between death tolls and economic indices. Patients ask questions for which I don’t have answers. No families or visitors are allowed in the premises. No students or “non-essential personnel” permitted to the hospital. Residents are instructed to follow social distancing protocols and there are to be no gatherings of more than five.

I went to a stroke alert today at a patient’s room for a patient that I wasn’t directly taking care of, I just happened to be nearby. The patient was in a designated “rule-out” room meaning all personnel involved need to treat the patient with extreme caution, and to limit those in contact with the patient to only those “essential.” Two nurses and a tech were in the cramped room already while the neurology resident was outside the room, not wanting to unnecessarily expose herself, miming the actions for a neurologic exam to one of the nurses. She gave instructions through the patient’s door window and into a speakerphone in a patient’s room a mere 4 or 5 feet away. The nurse and the tech cautiously proceeded to ask the patient to perform the maneuvers coached by the neurologist. It was an odd scene as clearly the patient could hear the instructions from the hallway through the door as well as the speakerphone but was polite enough to not mention that to the nurse directly in front of him. The nurse dutifully relayed the commands, “can you follow my finger with your eyes and keep your head still?” and the patient dutifully followed them. It would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre. Turns out he wasn’t having a stroke but it was good to have the opportunity to work out kinks regarding the protocol for patient emergencies. Residents are instructed to make note of instances in which normal protocols can’t be followed given the extra necessary precautions we now have to take. No doubt there will be plenty.

The hospital is both quiet but buzzing lately. Most of the services only have a few patients on each team and I walk down the wards and can find four-five-six! rooms in a row without any occupants. I’ve never seen more than two consecutive empty beds during my years here. The hospital policy is to discharge as many patients as possible with the impending influx of COVID cases to come. No elective surgeries and if you don’t absolutely need to be hospitalized you’d be safer at home. The atmosphere was akin to the episode of Game of Thrones just prior to the final battle in the last season. Nervous and anxious, we have no overflowing wine to keep us preoccupied and stumbling about. The morale is low and the silence in the hallways and in the former resident-gathering areas from our lounge to the cafeteria forces it to reverberate. Philadelphia has the temporary advantage of being able to watch from the shore as the tidal wave from China picks up steam as it makes its way across Europe, to New York City and crashing down I-95.

That night at home I continued to mentally scan my body for any possible symptoms. I hardly ever get sick so I don’t know if I’m short of breath at the top of the stairs because I’m out of shape or because I have a deadly infection. Best to push it to the back of my mind as there’s nothing I can do about it at this moment.

Bedtime routine completed. I get a text message at 10:00pm from a co-worker saying that the Attending I had been working with came back positive for coronavirus.

Image from Getty Images.

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