Emergency medicine alumni battle COVID-19 on the front lines and at home

By Roman Petrowski, Office of Communications

alumni covid-19 front lines

Throughout 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every person in the world in some form or another. Whether throughout day-to-day life in practicing social-distancing and personal-hygiene techniques or knowing friends or family members who have contracted the virus, the pandemic is a serious concern worldwide.

As emergency medicine physicians, McGovern Medical School alumni Brent King, MD, ’83; and Kelly Dodge, MD, ’04; watched with the rest of the world as the pandemic spread west from China, into Europe, and eventually landed in the United States.

“Once we failed to contain the virus by screening at airports, it was pretty certain we were going to see cases in the U.S.,” said King, a professor and vice chair for Quality, Safety, and Innovation at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Then, as data began to emerge suggesting COVID-19 could be spread by asymptomatic individuals, it was clear we would have an epidemic on our hands.”

Like all physicians on the front lines of the virus, the battle against COVID-19 hit both at work and at home. They leave their families every day, putting themselves face-to-face with the deadly disease, to help those infected and potentially stop the spread of the pandemic. However, with the courage to fight the virus, comes the risk of exposure.

“Personally, I was scared,” said Dodge, an emergency medicine physician at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California. “I knew I’d be seeing very sick patients with COVID and felt incredibly anxious about the many unknowns of the disease. I was nervous about my health, and the health of my family.”

Despite the risks, emergency medicine physicians and essential health care workers continue to press on as normal; though more conscientious of their surroundings to prevent unnecessary and potentially harmful spread.

Each day begins with a temperature check and the donning of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering the emergency department. When seeing patients under investigation of COVID-19, the physician’s wardrobe consists of an N95 mask, goggles, gloves, and a gown. For high-risk procedures like intubation, physicians wear a powered and supplied air respiratory protection (PAPR) hood to provide head, face, eye, and respiratory protection.

“The courage and dedication of healthcare professionals has inspired me and renewed my faith in the profession,” King said. “Doctors, nurses, and others have been selfless, brave, and have been tireless advocates for rational efforts to keep people safe and healthy.”

An increase in PPE when seeing patients face-to-face is not the only change for physicians treating patients with COVID-19. The disease has also brought on an influx of telemedicine visits, especially for King, who joined the “high-risk” age group after his last birthday.

“My colleagues have decided that we old codgers aren’t allowed to be involved in procedures that have the potential to generate respiratory aerosols, and that’s been humbling,” King said. “I’m using technology to interview patients in the emergency department, and when I’m focused on surge operations for our health systems, I spend a lot of the day between Zoom and phone calls.

“But at the end of the day, I am a physician, and I believe I took a sacred oath to care of the sick, and I plan to keep on doing just that.”

Perhaps the most difficult change for all involved in the COVID-19 pandemic, is the inability for friends and family to be with loved ones who are going through the disease. With the ease of which the virus spreads, the danger of allowing more people in a hospital room can lead to patients fighting the disease alone.

“I hate the inability of families to be with their loved ones in the emergency department,” said Dodge. “To have to call a loved one on my phone, hold it up to their family member’s ear, and say goodbye is heart wrenching. I’ve always had family at bedside during end-of-life situations, and not having them there makes me heartbroken for both the patient and their loved ones.”

Even the end of shift has changed drastically for health care workers in the during COVID-19. Dodge says she cleans all of her gear, stethoscope, work phone, ID tag, and takes a shower at the end of every shift, and she doesn’t bring her work items into the house to avoid any potential spread.

“I was frightened that I could bring this home and get my family or my mother (who is in her 60s and lives with Dodge) sick,” she said. “I made it my mission to protect myself and minimize nursing risk by streamlining what needed to be done.”

Despite everything going on around them however, both alumni have been able to find positives to help counterbalance the negatives. For King, the changes at home have even been minimal.

“Our social life hasn’t changed that much,” King said. “My wife, Rosemary Kozar, MD, PhD, has a busy career, so we like relaxing at home. The gym in our apartment building has been closed, so I have my road bike on a trainer, and I do virtual rides in the French and Italian Alps, and I do some Zoom exercise classes to stay in shape and relieve stress.”

For Dodge and her school-aged children, the changes have been more impactful. Due to shutdowns, there are no more sporting events for her kids. Opportunities to attend parties, school events, or even just being able to get together with friends have also gone away. However, technology has made those changes easier to deal with and given her a renewed perspective on life.

“I’ve been using Zoom to have happy hours with my college friends, and my boys are having Zoom calls with their friends as well,” she said. “We got a golden retriever puppy, and we get out for lots of walks and playing, and we’ve done a lot of yard work and house organizing as well. I’m lucky to have a great core group of friends that I can count on when I need to talk, and we’ve definitely been there for each other.

“The most positive thing has been taking a step back and spending quality time with my family,” she said. “I realized that my marriage is strong, my children are amazing, and that I need to let some things go.”

The ability to find positives in every situation is a special quality that a lot of physicians possess. Perhaps that what allows them to keep pressing on, even when a situation around them seems so dire.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that all of us who are dedicated to human health, from the bench scientists to the bedside clinicians, from every corner of the globe can set aside national and political differences to confront a common foe,” King said. “Maybe that is an example that the whole planet should follow.”