‘Respect this virus’ says Draper doctor back from New York hospital
Jun 11, 2020 11:43AM
By Stephanie Yrungaray
Dr. Dixie Harris from Draper spent 14 days on the front line in New York treating COVID-19 patients. (Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare)
By Stephanie Yrungaray | [email protected]
Draper resident and pulmonary critical care doctor Dixie Harris wanted to be in New York.
As the coronavirus spread and most Utahns were hunkering down, she was trying to figure out how to get to the front lines in one of the hardest-hit areas of the U.S.
“I was watching as it progressed through the world very carefully,” Harris said. “When we were preparing here, we saw that it was getting so hard in New York. [Coronavirus] is a disease in my field and knowing how much work it is to take care of these patients I had an incredible desire to go help my colleagues in another state.”
At the beginning of April, Intermountain Health Care put out a call for medical volunteers to assist in three New York hospitals that were hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Over 800 people volunteered, and Harris was one of 100 healthcare workers including physicians, advanced care providers, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and support staff that were chosen to help on the front lines.
Harris was assigned to Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, New York and arrived on April 15. For 15 days, including 10 overnight shifts, Harris was thrown into a highly stressed hospital system treating COVID-19 patients who were in critical condition.
“Southside Hospital is a moderate-sized community hospital about the size of St. Marks,” said Harris. “They went from 14 medical Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds up to 150 at the peak of their surge.”
“In the ICU we were very busy and had so many patients,” Harris said. “This tidal wave of patients hit over a very short time period and they continued to keep coming. They kept thinking this will maybe slow down but week after week they had to keep opening more ICUs.”
Harris provided backup for other doctors covering the hospital’s six ICUs. Five out of six units were COVID-19 positive patients and she was directly responsible for one to two ICUs. Southside Hospital had four critical care physicians who had been working day and night for five weeks and the Intermountain volunteers allowed them the opportunity to rest and recuperate. Harris’ typical shift in New York started with going over cases with the outgoing medical team.
“We talked about where each case was going, ideas and things that needed to be changed and improved,” Harris said.
Besides the stress from the sheer number of severely ill patients and a shortage of supplies and staff, Harris said another difficult part of treating COVID-19 patients in New York was updating family members on the status of their loved one.
“These are very unique circumstances,” Harris said. “It’s the first time I’ve been in an ICU setting where family members could not be there in the waiting room. Previous to COVID-19 we followed national standards with families at bedsides or in waiting rooms and as things change for the good or worse we update their families.”
With family members not allowed at the hospital, Harris and the other medical workers had the difficult tasks of keeping families informed and connected and helping frightened patients in any way they could. Sometimes that meant holding up an iPad so intubated patients could see family members. For Harris, that meant holding the hand of one particular patient.
“Some of the patients were on mechanical ventilation,” Harris said. “But some didn't have to be heavily sedated. They were in bed, looking around with big eyes at the other patients around them and unable to talk because they were intubated. There was one patient who would wave her hand every time I walked by her bed. She didn’t have family nearby and she couldn’t have visitors...she just wanted someone to hold her hand. We didn’t have extra staff but every time I was in the ICU I would try to hold this lady’s hand. It was very impactful.”
Over the phone, Harris had to tell an elderly man about the condition of his wife whose organs were quickly shutting down. The man, who was older than his wife and had already recovered from his own bout with COVID-19, was distraught that he couldn’t be by his wife’s side.
“He didn’t understand how he could have it and get better but his wife was dying,” Harris said. “It shows how cruel this virus is. One person can get it and not have to go to the hospital and the next person gets it and can die from it.”
After 15 days working on the front lines in New York, Harris returned home to her family in Draper. She said the experience has made her more vigilant and more vocal.
“Before we started our first shift [in New York], the CTO of Northwell Healthcare System told us, ‘Respect this virus,’” Harris said. “Until we get a vaccine this virus will probably go through the whole community. People with risk factors like obesity, heart disease and diabetes tend to get sicker but I've seen patients with no medical problems end up in the ICU.”
Harris said seeing firsthand how medical care is impacted by an overwhelmed system is why Utahns need to continue to be vigilant in social distancing.
“Everything you saw on the news [about New York] was not an exaggeration. That’s exactly how it was. I went from a hospital that was completely overrun to a hospital that had COVID patients with enough nurses and everything we needed to do the best care possible,” Harris said. “Being back in a hospital in Utah was like night and day. If we aren’t overrun with patients we can do so much good.”
She also encourages people to contact their physicians if they are having other medical problems.
“Another thing that is happening with this disease is that other medical problems are not being addressed because patients are not coming into the doctor,” Harris said. “If you are having concerns it is better to get in and get seen. Almost every facility can do video visits and telephone visits. Don’t avoid coming into hospitals, they are very safe and have safety protocols to keep patients and providers minimally exposed.”
Most of all, Harris wants Utahns to respect the virus and work together to minimize the spread by following Utah Department of Health recommendations.
“These people know the data. They are working 24 hours a day, and they know what we need to do here,” Harris said. “The coronavirus is real. It is here and it can get really bad here if we don’t all work together. That is what is important. We don't want what happened in Southside to happen here in our system.”