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Retired MDs and Med Students Talk Working the COVID-19 Front Lines

Since March COVID-19 has nearly pushed the American healthcare system to a breaking point.

To take on the deluge of patients with COVID-19, or who potentially had an infection with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, hospitals had to reach out to members of the medical community far and wide.

Fortunately, many have come to their assistance.

Retired physicians, doctors in private practice, and even medical students just barely out of school have volunteered to help in the fight against this pandemic.

Although they come from different backgrounds, what unites them is a shared drive to heed the call, and to lend a hand in this catastrophe.

Healthline recently got the chance to speak with several of these individuals. Here are their stories.

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Dr. Haydee Brown has volunteered to help with COVID-19 patients at a hospital in the Bronx. Photo via Dr. Haydee Brown

Dr. Haydee Brown, orthopedic surgeon

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Haydee Brown, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the advocacy group Physicians for Patient Protection, was running a successful private practice.

But, as elective surgeries ground to a halt due to the pandemic, so did her workload. She’s since volunteered to help with COVID-19 patients at the Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx through New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Medical Reserve Corps.

Brown’s personal life has also been upended by the pandemic: She lost her brother-in-law to COVID-19 this month.

Brown had also planned to be married this month, but had to call off the wedding due to the pandemic. Instead, she’s voluntarily working alongside doctors in the ER.

What is the state of mind right now among you and your colleagues?

Brown: We were very determined and a bit frustrated that we haven’t, or at that time we hadn’t, figured out how to “cure it,” and that’s frustrating in medicine. I’m an orthopedic surgeon, so that’s the difference between me and an internal medicine doctor. Things in ortho don’t work and you fix it.

I think the inability to stop this was a bit frustrating, and the fact that we didn’t understand things. For example, I had a patient in his 40s who really didn’t have any medical problems at all. He walked in, and in the course of 6 hours we ended up putting him on a vent. It’s just how rapidly they decline.

How worried are you about your own health?

Brown: I’m definitely concerned. But if you take the correct precautions and have the right PPE, you should be fine.

So, my fiancee is actually a firefighter here in Harlem, so he is on the front lines and I am on the front lines, so we discussed what we would want done in the event that either of us became very ill, as well as the precautions we’d take.

So, making sure before entering the apartment that we are completely decontaminated, and just trying to follow safety mechanisms to be as safe as possible.

Has anything shocked you being back at a large hospital under these circumstances?

Brown: When I walked into the hospital, one thing that was immediately alarming was that there’s something called a “rapid response,” and rapid response is just on the overhead system, and there’s a team of people that will go to whatever floor to deal with a patient that is critically ill.

Usually in the hospital, you can hear rapid response once every couple of times a day. But there were rapid responses multiple times an hour. Every time you hear that, that’s someone that’s on the edge.

What stands out positively in your time at the hospital?

Brown: The staff, although overworked and hungry and tired and extremely frustrated, were really warm and welcoming, and also very compassionate for these patients who are incredibly scared, who are by themselves.

I think it showed the best of who we are as clinicians and physicians, to try and provide comfort for people at this time.

Dr. Gerry Cordani, retired internal medicine physician

Dr. Gerry Cordani, an internal medicine doctor with 5 decades of experience, has been retired for 8 years. At 75 years old, he’s in a high-risk category for COVID-19.

Despite that danger, he now works alongside doctors at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, as a physician liaison. He came back to work after, admittedly, “feeling guilty about sitting around.”

As a physician liaison, Cordani makes daily rounds and assists physicians by making calls to patients’ families. He’s required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), although he doesn’t have direct exposure to patients.

What motivated you to help out during this pandemic?

Cordani: I was sitting about home about 3 weeks ago. The social distancing thing didn’t really affect my life too much; I live a pretty quiet lifestyle. I do my watercolors and get out and walk around. I saw one of my fellow doctors on TV… she was coming back to volunteer. When I saw her, I got motivated.

You have a little inner voice. We all have an inner voice, and I just said, “I’ve got to do something. I can’t sit here, and if I can contribute, then let me contribute.”

What does your family think of your decision?

Cordani: I didn’t ask too many people about whether I should do it or not. I just made that decision. My kids are not happy. They are worried about me, but at the same time I think they are proud I’m doing something.

Do you have any experiences that stand out since you’ve been back?

Cordani: The second patient I called when I arrived, all of a sudden I noticed the name of a family. It was one of my old patients from 15 years ago. She heard my name, and her mother was dying, and she couldn’t visit her mother.

And when she heard my voice it was really almost a spiritual experience of having one of my old patients, and here her mother is dying. Her mother died over the next 3 days. She was in her 90s. It was very comforting to her to know that I was involved in letting her know what was happening.

How long do you think you’re going to keep this up?

Cordani: I’ll probably continue until I’m not needed anymore. I think we’re starting to see a slowdown. They are trying to open up some non-COVID floors and get elective surgery back again. My sense is another week or 10 days. and I might get back to doing some watercolors.

Dr. Lei Alexander Qin, graduating medical student, class of 2020

Alex Qin is still feeling out the title “Doctor.” As part of the 2020 class at the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, he and his class graduated early on April 10.

Instead of a few months of downtime until the start of their residency programs, they faced a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe and the chance to work with COVID-19 patients.

Although he didn’t take the decision lightly, Qin ultimately took the challenge, and is now assisting at the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York.

No one really gets the opportunity to graduate into a pandemic. What has that been like?

Qin: We were kind of thrust into this role. We had rapid onboarding. We all started last Thursday, and it’s been a growing process for sure.

This isn’t something that’s ever happened before, and none of us were expecting to start anything clinically until July 1, which is when residencies normally start. So, it’s definitely been a shock and an adjustment to many of us.

What was the decision making process like for volunteering?

Qin: It wasn’t an easy decision to decide to volunteer. That was a conversation I had with my partner, who is also a recent graduate of the same school. He’s also volunteered to work early.

Both of us had to sit down and speak with our families about why we wanted to volunteer, why we felt like it was important, and why we felt like we’d be a valuable asset to the team during this time. So, it was definitely a very difficult decision, and not something that we took lightly.

What motivated you to do this?

Qin: I’m a first-generation Chinese American, but all of my mom’s family is from Wuhan, so basically my entire family lives there. So, we first heard about this back then, and I think it started out in my mind as, “I never thought it would happen here.”

Then when we first started getting cases in Washington state and then in California and then New York, I sort of felt a responsibility to play some small role in caring for these patients.

What do you think is a misconception about yourself and your choice to do this?

Qin: I really want to make sure that people don’t perceive us as naive medical students who want to be heroes and jump straight into the front lines and be martyrs.

I think it’s easy for the media to run with that story because it’s very appealing. My experience was that it was a very long and honest and realistic conversation about the pros and cons.

All of us thought very deeply about whether or not we’d be helping, or if we’d just be in people’s way.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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