When doctors and nurses decide to become medical professionals, they’re never led to believe they won’t be able to treat a person’s ailments. “You’re taught that your goal is to heal, your goal is to make people better, in simple terms,” said Mitch Jacobson, chief of the Department of Nephrology at North Shore Medical Center. “With COVID-19, you’re doing what you can, but at times you succeed, at times you don’t. And it’s extremely challenging from an emotional standpoint.”
Jacobson is one of many local health care professionals who have put their patients’ needs above their own safety to do their jobs during the health crisis. These workers, on the front lines and those supporting on the periphery, have never dealt with something like this before, and the ripple effects of the disease have impacted all facets of the health care system.
As a nephrologist, Jacobson is part of a COVID-19 patient’s care team at North Shore Medical Center. The North Shore resident said that acute kidney injury is a possible side effect of COVID-19, particularly for those who already have kidney disease. “My role is to assist in the overall care of the patient, specifically in relation to the acute kidney injuries, and facilitate a discussion with the families,” he said. And in the most severe cases, where patients are on dialysis, “we try to support them to see if we can give their own immune system a chance to fight this horrible disease and get better.”
Many of the patients he’s seeing are older and some of the most vulnerable, which he said makes this disease so painful for him to treat. However, he has never felt prouder to be a doctor, working with a close-knit team, despite the extreme circumstances. “You’re exhausted when you leave the hospital, you’re exhausted when you leave the dialysis clinic, but it’s an exhaustion of self-satisfaction. You feel amazingly accomplished because you’re really truly doing what you set out to do in your medical career, and that’s to truly help others,” said Jacobson.
Marblehead’s Jake Danesh works as an emergency trauma technician at Beverly Hospital. Danesh, who is 27, has been surprised by the secondary effects of the pandemic on his hospital’s emergency room. Prior to the pandemic, Danesh said anywhere from 15 to 20 people would be waiting to be seen in the emergency room. “After the shutdown, our volume plummeted. And so we’re not really struggling now with the volume anymore, but the patients definitely have been sicker,” said Danesh. Reflecting on how the virus changed his day-to-day role, he said “it is very refreshing to go into work and be able to take care of very sick people. You know, that’s why most of us are in ER, we want to take care of the sickest patients and stabilize them.”
Although Leslie Kerzner, 54, a Lynnfield neonatologist at Mass General Hospital has an N-95 mask with her initials on it at work, she isn’t on the front lines. Because she has the potential to deliver a baby for a COVID-19-positive mother, she dons full PPE in the delivery room. Mass General’s neonatal intensive care unit gave all but five of its ventilators to the adult intensive care unit for use by COVID-19 patients, so many of the premature babies that require a venitlator have to be transferred to other hospitals. This means that mothers who deliver babies needing ventilators have to be separated from them as soon as they’re born.
COVID-19 raises other dilemmas for mothers who test positive. Kerzner recalled a recent case of a newborn: the baby tested negative for the virus, while its mother tested positive for the virus. “Think of having to be six feet away from your newborn baby,” she said. If newborns live with parents who have COVID-19, “they’re six feet apart and are now experiencing a parent with no face, the face is covered by a mask … that’s when a baby learns to smile,” she said. “I worry about poorly attached mothers and babies because that has affects downstream.” She is also worried about the lack of support new mothers will receive from grandparents and friends because of social distancing guidelines, which may lead to a spike in postpartum depression.
Physicians like Family Care Center of Stoneham’s Marc Pifco, 58, are also helping stem the pandemic away from the frontlines. The Lynnfield resident sees dozens of patients per week via telemedicine, and almost all of them are calling about suspected cases of COVID-19. “I think it’s hard on both ends of the phone because it’s really unsettling for medical providers to be talking to people who are sick and afraid. And we know some of them are going to get sick enough to end up in the hospital,” he said. All he can do for these patients is offer them support and referrals to testing clinics or hospitals if needed. “We’re just used to being able to fix things. And this is something [where] we’ve not been able to fix a lot of folks.”
Pifco is ready to go on the front lines if needed, but said his role is also important for relieving pressure on the health care system by directing patients away from hospitals as much as possible. His feelings are mixed about going on the front line. “We want our families to be healthy, but I think we realize yet it’s a privilege to do what we do,” he said. “It’s a privilege not only to still be able to have a paycheck, but it’s a privilege to be able to get that paycheck doing good.”