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A Celebration of Teamwork

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020 - 18:45

By Suzan Wollard, PA

It was a fifth-grade current events project that first brought the pandemic home for me. My 10-year-old daughter, who attends a Catholic school on the Upper East Side of New York, was writing about an evolving epidemic called coronavirus.  It was February and we had just returned from a family vacation — the virus was in the news but still seemed very far away from us.

My daughter described Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who tried to alert the world about a new severe respiratory syndrome – a disease that took his own life in a short period of time. Dr. Li was a father as well as a doctor committed to his patients, and in February he paid the ultimate price. My curious daughter asked me probing questions about the new epidemic, and I realized I didn’t know enough about it yet to answer her.

I work in Neurosurgery and Neurology at the Weill Cornell Medicine campus of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and although I've cared for patients with a wide range of critical conditions, like everyone else I knew very little about this one.  When I returned to work after vacation, however, the importance of my daughter’s social studies assignment — and the relevance our conversations to our lives — quickly became clear.

My first Covid-19 task was to dismiss the students in our Physician Assistant program from their clinical rotations, suddenly and indefinitely. This news came as a shock, with profound implications that rippled through a community committed to education. It was for their own protection, and it also helped reduce the number of people on site and it freed working PAs to receive training in how to care for patients with the coronavirus.     

The next assignment was to educate my team of PAs about critical care medicine and acute respiratory distress syndrome. We specialize in neurological conditions, which is very different, so we needed to become proficient in respiratory care practically overnight. Using Zoom sessions, Dr. Judy Ch'ang (neurointensivist in the intensive care unit located in the south wing of the second floor – which we refer to as the 2 South Neuro ICU) and Dr. Joshua Davis (medical ICU fellow on 5 South), played critical roles in quickly transforming our group of dedicated PAs into a staff well versed in terms like ARDS, PEEP, Pplat, P:F, and FiO2. We became experts in ordering propofol, paralytics, proning, and vent changes. 

Next we created staffing plans for new satellite ICUs that were being set up on 2 Southwest and 2 West in anticipation of the great surge in patients to come. With less than two weeks of training (with many hours of intense study outside of work hours), we became ICU PAs – and when we received the call to duty from the Command Center, we responded. Uncertain of our new physician leaders, our new team members, our new roles, and ourselves we quickly rose to the occasion and worked out the kinks. We even partnered with Amy Reischer, Director of Physician Assistants at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist, to help provide coverage to our neighbors in Brooklyn.
Patricia Ni, PA (center), was instrumental in getting meals donated to sustain front-line health care workers

It was truly an amazing team effort. Patricia Ni, a neurology PA, immediately raised money to provide more than 70 meals for our frontline staff in the ED. Thanks to her and Matt Laghezza, PA; Kevin Ng, Interim Director of Food and Nutrition; and restaurant “886” owner Andy Chuang, we were able to show our appreciation of our frontline staff right out of the box. Patricia ended up fundraising $130,000 for more than 10,000 meals to NYC hospitals and provided donated meals to our staff every night.

Patricia didn’t stop there. She also collaborated with a California-based nonprofit, Trainers Coalition, to provide Zoom yoga sessions with complimentary Lululemon yoga gift mats to help de-stress the front line staff.  And she, along with neurosurgery PA Allison Basham and Division Chief for Neurocritical Care Hooman Kamel, MD, donated PPE supplies to our teams in need of masks. 

The outpouring of support from within the team has been incredible. Many of our staff faced personal illness throughout this crisis – we were exposed to the virus on a daily basis, so it wasn’t long before the first person on our team was quarantined. Suddenly we faced a new “first,” and our Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Kate Heilpern, responded personally to set the tone for how we could support a team member struggling at home.   

NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine PAs on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemicAlthough the team has faced many challenges along this journey, this experience has made each of us stronger. We have learned new skills, supported each other, connected with our community, and cared for those afflicted with Covid-19. The PAs are frontline providers who have shown compassion to patients, families, each other, and the wider team. They saved many lives and helped families cope with loss. The care they provided was appreciated by so many families in words of gratitude and acts of kindness. 

This has certainly been an unprecedented time of change and a journey that we are all still sorting through. The NYP Weill Cornell Neuro PAs should feel proud of their response to this world pandemic. As their team leader, I am especially proud of them – and I’m grateful for my daughter’s school for sending me that first wake-up call back in February.