Doctor of Resilience
You play a big role in helping Atlanta cope with one of the worst catastrophes in recent history. When did you realize the enormity of the pandemic?
In April of 2020, we had a healthy 28-year-old patient come in with a cardiac arrest with no prior history. Despite all our efforts, he deteriorated quickly and passed away. I was shocked to see someone so young and otherwise healthy succumb to the virus. I remember there was a young nurse in the room who repeated “Covid is here” over and over again through her tears. At that moment, I knew we were dealing with something unprecedented.
Manning the frontlines, what has been the most challenging part of dealing with Covid inflicted suffering?
For us, doctors, nurses, technicians, and everyone else, it has been tough. We have been running at full capacity. Patients are much sicker, and there are far more deaths, including young people. We are accustomed to seeing older patients, but when someone your own age or younger comes in, it hits hard. Visitors are not allowed because of Covid restrictions, and it’s heartbreaking to see the elderly dying without family for support. Even though the ED staff is very busy, everyone steps up to provide emotional support, to help grandparents use FaceTime to try to communicate with their families, and in a way be their family in the greatest time of need.
In the Dekalb Medical Foundation 2017 Annual report, you are quoted as saying: “Emergency Rooms tend to be places of organized chaos, and we’re turning that around by providing one of calm and connectivity where patients can confidently receive premier care and privacy in the most soothing setting possible.” Did the recent renovations prove timely?
Yes! We have the ability to assess patients quickly. As we dealt with the surge, we had to get creative with all the space available. Patients are typically categorized as vertical (those who can move) and horizontal (those who cannot). Many patients do not need full rooms, and we can attend to more patients in vertical suites. We can evaluate patients in the waiting room, and they can sit in a chair rather than take up an entire room while waiting on labs. This allows us to accommodate more patients.
Mental health has become a concern for everyone, especially healthcare workers who are tackling the crisis head-on. How is your team coping with work-related stress? What resources are available to you?
Thank you for asking that. Fortunately, there are several resources available to us. There is a Physician Support Line, a free, confidential peer support hotline hosted by volunteer psychiatrists seven days a week. Then there is the Physician Vitality Initiative, a national organization that offers various resources as well. SLACK offers digital safe spaces to talk anonymously. We have regular in-house meetings. For example, when a young patient dies, we gather for a debriefing to talk about and process what happened. I have been a physician for 16 years, and I know that there is a universal god, that there are elements out of our control. We cannot carry the burden of death. For us, a reassuring phone call or text can make a big difference.
You have two young daughters, eight and ten years old. Your husband is a doctor as well. As parents who are acutely aware of the dangers posed by the virus, do you cocoon your children or present the alarming facts in a way they can comprehend?
We believe in having real conversations with our children to give them the truth in a way they can process without scaring them. I tell them that life is full of surprises and challenges. What matters is how you react in those situations. They do see me upset and sad—that is part of life, and I want them to have a realistic view of the world. I have cried in front of them, which helps develop empathy. This is an opportunity to teach our children, without being too heavy, about life and encourage them to see a silver lining in the darkest times. During the pandemic, our nuclear family has grown stronger. We spend a lot more time together, playing games, watching movies. We have much to be grateful for. When I drive my children to school, we say a quick prayer and take a moment to express gratitude for everything good in our lives. They show appreciation for the smallest things.
From tickets to the Super Bowl to resounding applause outside hospitals, the country has expressed appreciation for healthcare workers in various ways. What can Atlantans do to help ease your burden? Is there somewhere we can donate funds?
Initially, there was an outpouring of acts of kindness, but that seems to have dwindled over time. I am sure there are many places to donate money, but there are other meaningful ways to show support. Something as small as a box of donuts for the ED staff makes them feel appreciated and reminds them that they are not alone. If people can continue to show appreciation in heartfelt ways, it will really help.
As the vaccine is being rolled out, people appear to be less inclined to maintain the healthcare guidelines. What is your advice for everyone?
I urge people to wear masks and follow all healthcare guidelines even as the vaccine becomes more readily available. Please get tested. I helped set up testing sites at the Brookhaven Marta Station and the Santa Fe Mall. Please do your part to help us all be safe.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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