The heroes in the fight against the new coronavirus don’t wear capes. They wear scrubs, lab coats, and protective gear. They are the doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who work on the front lines, treating others at the risk of catching the virus themselves or bringing it home to their families.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice, and it takes its toll,” said Dr. Dov Frankel, emergency physician, disaster preparedness at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. “But I’m incredibly proud to be an emergency medicine physician at this time and to be able to help any way I can.”
Here are stories of a few doctors working in the emergency room and in offices, and how their work has been affected by COVID-19.
Dr. Dov Frankel
By Jesse Berman
“God put me in this situation at this time to help as many people as possible,” Frankel said. “We have emunah in God that he gave us COVID, but also gave us the ability to overcome it.”
As a physician on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, Frankel’s confidence is decidedly reassuring.
Frankel studied at Ben-Gurion University and did his residency in Little Rock, Ark. After moving to Baltimore, he worked for nine years as the assistant director at Sinai Hospital’s emergency department and has spent the last five years as an emergency physician at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He is currently a member of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion.
Since the outbreak began, Frankel noted, GBMC has been setting up tents outside its emergency department for the purpose of screening patients potentially carrying COVID-19. “If you come to the ER, every person is screened,” Frankel said, “and if anyone has any symptoms like fever, cough, myalgia, they go into the tents. If they have other symptoms, they bypass the tents and go into the emergency department.”
Frankel described the tents as comfortable and well lit, and noted that they had not yet been “inundated.” He also stated that the purpose of the tents is technically not to test for COVID-19, as that had not yet begun. “All we do there is rule out pneumonia, influenza. … If we suspect a patient might have COVID, we send them home for quarantine.” Frankel estimated that his ER has sent home some 56 patients for quarantine as of March 17, stating he himself had sent home six.
Frankel explained that he’s passionate about the work he has been doing, but that the extended hours, lack of vacation, and the reduction in the amount of time he can spend with his family has not been easy.
Frankel praised his colleagues for “going the extra mile. I haven’t seen any whining or kvetching. Everyone is buckling down for the long haul. It’s truly amazing to see the camaraderie, and inspiring to see everyone helping each other.”
Asked if he is concerned about becoming infected with COVID-19, Frankel said, “I am certain I will be, but I am taking every precaution we are taught to do to try to prevent it. But the way it has been progressing, it seems inevitable.” Frankel stated that he is trying to prevent his family from growing concerned. “I try not to worry them or talk to them about it. I’m not sugarcoating it, but I am downplaying what’s really going on behind the scenes.”
Frankel stressed that it will take everyone working together to weather this crisis, but that if people “take the necessary precautions hopefully everything will work out. And if we band together and put our trust in God, we will overcome it as a society and as a world.”
Dr. Jason Birnbaum
By Jesse Berman
Speaking of the ongoing danger of COVID-19, Dr. Jason M. Birnbaum, chair of the Department of Medicine and chief of the Division of Critical Care at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, gave a sobering account of how he views our state of readiness.
“We are preparing for something we believe is quite scary,” he said. “It’s put us in the position of something we never expected to see in our careers.”
He graduated from the George Washington School of Medicine, and later did his residency at the University of Maryland, as well as his fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He is also a member of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace.
“I’m usually in the hospital by 7 a.m.,” Birnbaum said, “either doing direct patient care or treating pulmonary or critically ill patients. We’ve been having incident command meetings twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.”
Birnbaum said that he was “one of six doctors that are physician administrators on call, helping with triage issues that come up throughout the house.”
As of March 20, his hospital had one COVID-19 patient, whose symptoms included fever, shortness of breath, and increased oxygen needs, he said. “This patient was fortunate in that her respiratory status did not decline. Our two hospitals, Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, have 16 patients under investigation, meaning we are ruling them out for COVID-19.”
Birnbaum described the experience as being “very stressful. We were preparing for weeks before we actually had a case. When the case arrived, things hit a much higher pitch in terms of planning and brought home the reality of the situation.”
Birnbaum also noted a palpable disconnect between the situation in his hospital and what everyone else is experiencing. “When you are in the middle of it, and then go home to your family and peers, they are several levels below concerned, and it’s hard to transition from what we’re seeing at the hospital and what most people are believing.”
Frustration has also been growing regarding “the lack of resources available from the health care system at large, such as the inability to get testing done,” Birnbaum said. “The last few years we’ve been emphasizing downsizing inpatient capacity and shifting to outpatient care, which has left us vulnerable as we don’t have the capacity. We’ve been challenged on how to house and care for patients, and on how to properly staff for those patients.”
Birnbaum emphasized the importance of continuing to practice social distancing, and that the majority of people who do get infected “do just fine.”
“I would say for everyone to just keep being kind and thoughtful towards each other,” Birnbaum said, “and be mindful that everyone handles stress differently, and that together we’ll all get through this.”
Dr. Lawrence Starin
By Carolyn Conte
While the community closes their windows and locks their doors, doctors are opening their doors and potentially welcoming a pandemic into their offices.
Dr. Lawrence Starin is a general surgery specialist at the Center for Vein Restoration, and he is struggling to keep his patients safe while helping those in need. To ensure a sanitary environment, his office now screens patients before their appointment. So far, none have been canceled because of these screenings.
“We’ve had a fair number of no-shows or cancellations,” he said. “Whether those patients had any symptoms or not, I can’t say.”
One of his staff members has self-quarantined, as she has an underlying medical condition that could put her in extreme danger if she were to become infected. According to Starin, she is currently not sick.
Personally, he said, he is scared.
He recognizes that he could be infected, as he comes in contact with many people in a day. To mitigate the risks, he has increased his hand-washing and avoided handshakes, “but as a physician, I need to examine and touch patients,” he said. However, he continued, “It doesn’t dominate my thoughts or render me unable to do my job.”
The pandemic reminds him somewhat of the onset of AIDS in the ’80s. Then, he was a surgical resident in New York City.
“There was a lot that we didn’t know at the time and there was a genuine fear of how it was transmitted and who was at risk,” Starin said.
He strongly emphasized that his medical education never prepared him for a pandemic, not then nor now.
Most of all, he is concerned people are not taking it seriously enough.
“Like anyone else, there is some degree of fear and anxiety,” he said. “So little is known about this virus that, again, like anyone else, I must rely on the information that is supplied to us from respected and knowledgeable sources, such as the CDC or local health departments. As a husband, father, and son, I am concerned about my own family members, especially my elderly mother.”