New York City Health + Hospitals (NYCH+H), the country’s largest public health care system, encompasses 11 hospitals with 4,354 staffed acute beds during normal times. It serves as the safety net for 1.1 million of the 8.4 million residents of the most populous city in the United States, many of them uninsured, undocumented, covered by Medicaid, or otherwise disadvantaged.
At the very epicenter in the early days of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, NYCH+H transferred patients between its facilities, added medical and ICU beds by the hundreds, mobilized palliative care volunteers, harnessed telemedicine and a clinician hotline, and made other sweeping changes to ensure that the city’s public health system would be able to respond to demand at the peak of the surge. That peak hit in April, when an average of 9,000 new COVID-19 cases were being reported in the city every day.
Through it all, hospitalists have played critical roles in both planning for the system’s response and caring for severely ill COVID-19 patients. Their stories reflect both the unprecedented demands on the system and the dedication of frontline clinicians.
One of those, Carla Saladini-Aponte, MD, who just finished her residency in June 2019, found herself on the firing line in March 2020 as an attending physician at 457-bed NYCH+H/Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. “I have experienced so much in my first year on the job, dealing with a disease that we’ve never seen before,” she said. “We didn’t grasp the extent of the COVID crisis in the beginning, so we were emotionally unprepared when it first hit.”
Starting on March 30, NYCH+H administration mobilized a centralized incident command structure to coordinate response systemwide to a rapidly changing situation.
Two weeks later Jacobi was a COVID-19 hospital, top to bottom, with its medical ICU beds increased from 12 to more than 100. By mid-April, Dr. Saladini-Aponte’s team, one of 11 medical teams in the hospital, had 26 patients, all of them with COVID-19. There was not a consensus in the early days on how to manage patients with severe respiratory distress. “But by the time the surge came, we had a better understanding of the scope of the situation,” she said.
Learning to be an attending
“They don’t teach you how to be an attending during residency,” Dr. Saladini-Aponte said. “At the beginning I wasn’t such a good teacher. I just wanted to prove myself and stay one step ahead of the residents. But as an academic hospitalist you have to listen to others. I learned to ask questions of the residents every morning, including how they were doing personally.”
Sometimes a visiting consultant would ask on the floor: “‘Where’s your attending?’” not recognizing Dr. Saladini-Aponte, fresh out of residency, filling that role. At times, she felt like a PGY-4 (postgraduate year 4). But she quickly grew into the attending role and was asked to be site coordinator for the mobilization of palliative medicine volunteers at Jacobi.
“We found ourselves having to make tough ethical decisions. Some patients, even if we provided a ventilator and maximum oxygen therapy, would still die. There were difficult discussions when we didn’t know if we had enough dialysis machines, or how to manage other limited resources. The hospital was saying: You decide, if there’s a high degree of certainty about the outcome. But we had never practiced medicine this way before,” she said.
“That’s why our hospital provided daily ethics meetings with our ethics council. There would be eight people sitting 6 feet apart in a conference room, all wearing masks. We’d talk about situations that were giving us trouble. Their role wasn’t to provide answers but to help us see the scope of the situation and the complexities,” she explained.
Dr. Saladini-Aponte said she has had many sleepless nights since the pandemic began. “Sometimes, I would come home from work and lie down on the floor and cry,” she said. “But we had so much support from volunteers helping our little hospitalist service of seven.” It was also important to keep up with the clinical information, and one of her coworkers created “cheat sheets” for the clinicians, regularly updated with the latest essential information on antibiotics, testing, and the like.
“At the peak, I was trying to read everything I could about the virus. I was just pulling myself in too many directions. I asked for help from my boyfriend to remind me not to log onto my computer when I came home from work,” she said. “One of my techniques for preventing burnout was just to avoid social media. I couldn’t deal with what was going on in the news. It just angered me. Even now, seeing people without masks makes me very uncomfortable.”