COVID-19 doctor on health care workers: ‘It’s like running into a burning building’

In mid-February, Dr. Peter Morris and fellow University of Kentucky faculty members attended the Society of Critical Care Congress in Orlando, Fla. While there, they saw a presentation linked to Wuhan, China, in which intensive care providers spoke about the coronavirus crisis as it was taking hold.

“And you just got a gut feeling after listening to them—even though the reports might have been technical at the time—you could hear in their voices the strain and the volume of what they were seeing,” Morris said recently. “I remember leaving one meeting after a session like that and it was pretty sobering. People were quiet. And many of us thought, ‘This is a freight train. It’s coming.'”

The coronavirus freight train did come, right to Central Kentucky where Morris, chief of pulmonary and critical care at the UK Hospital, along with respiratory therapist Larry White, are among those dealing hands-on with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

A New York native, Morris attended St. John’s University and Cornell Medical School. It was midway through his time at Cornell that he decided he wanted to focus on critical care.

“I had a great mentor and he said, ‘What do you want to do?'” Morris remembered. “This is in New York in the early ’80s. And I said, ‘I want to work in an ICU.’ And he said, ‘OK, that’s kind of strange. What do you want to do in the ICU?’ And I said, ‘I think I want to do research.’ He said, ‘That’s really strange, but I have something for you.'”

Morris was sent to the National Institute of Health, where he experienced “what high-level clinical research was like.” That led to a scholarship residency at Vanderbilt University, one of the leaders in critical care research. This is his second tour of duty at UK, having spent six years at the university before leaving for Wake Forest. After nearly two decades in Winston-Salem, N.C., he returned to the university five years ago to become chief of pulmonary care.

He has seen pandemics before, but COVID-19 is an especially hard virus on the lungs. Those who test positive often experience breathing difficulties to the point where some are intubated and placed on ventilators.

“In the ICU now, the people that we are seeing who are testing positive really don’t require anything different than what we’ve been providing for years for people in terms of the care and the support of their organs,” Morris said. “What’s different is there are a lot of them and they’re really, really sick.”

‘Are we going to catch it?’

A native of Savannah, Georgia, White has lived in Lexington 23 years. He’s been a respiratory therapist for five years. Before that, he was a restaurant manager at Cracker Barrel who decided he wanted a second career in the medical field. He looked into nursing, but after talking to a family friend who was a respiratory therapist, he opted to go in that direction.

“I’m glad I did,” White said. “I love my job.”

What is White seeing in his job now?

“It’s been a lot of things, very enlightening, nerve-wracking. It’s hard to explain,” White said. “Coming to work when it first started, we were all very fearful of what it’s going to be like. Are we going to catch it? That kind of thing. But as it has gone on and we’ve worked with the patients—I’ve been one of the people that has been up there since they started coming in, pretty much—it’s gotten better. I feel more comfortable with it.”

“May I insert here, that is just the marker of incredible professionalism,” Morris said.

After returning from Orlando, Morris and his colleagues began planning for what was to come. Having planned for the Ebola pandemic in 2016 helped with preparations for COVID-19. Some facets, such as disaster management, were already in place. Hearing stories from New York and California provided doctors an idea of what to expect.

Still, there have been surprises. Though, at least through mid-April the volume of patients was not what some experts had predicted—”We attribute that to social-distancing and the very courageous work done by the public health people,” Morris said—the caseload was still striking for a six-week period. Also, the number of young people infected was unexpected.

“In the work that Larry and I and our colleagues do, we see a lot of illness,” Morris said. “But to see it in a short time period with so many younger people, this is really something.”

Not surprising, but very gratifying is what Morris has seen from those who work in the critical care unit.

“They’re incredibly brave,” Morris said. “I think I would put it as the equivalent of people running into a burning house to save someone.”

‘A lot of silent heroes’

The respiratory therapists and nurses work together in other areas, such as turning patients onto a prone position while on the ventilator—a practice that started around 2013.

“My biggest thing is the teamwork,” White said. “We have always worked very well together in all the different disciplines, but specifically respiratory and nursing. We’re doing things like I’m helping give baths or cleaning stations up or mopping the floors in the room, whatever it is. It’s not stuff that we’ve ever done. So it’s given me an appreciation, and on the flip side it’s given them a greater appreciation for what we do as well.”

“These people have volunteered for more shifts,” Morris said. “I think there are a lot of silent heroes here.”

As an example, Morris pointed to medical professionals who serve as “spotters,” who help doctors and respiratory therapists into their personal protective equipment, then watch them while in the room to make sure the PPE isn’t being compromised. The spotters then help remove the garb in a sequence that will prevent contamination.

“They’re excellent,” White said.

On the one hand, one of the more difficult aspects of dealing with the coronavirus has been comforting families who cannot be with their infected loved ones in the hospital. Morris called it “one of the most harsh things I’ve seen for families of critically ill people.”

On the other hand, dealing with the crisis in a hands-on manner is not without its rewards.

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