EDITORS NOTE: Healing Hands is an ongoing series featuring the personal stories of health care workers who spend their days on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. John Boll walks into a hospital room. Gowned, gloved and masked, Boll assesses his patient before eventually making his determination. He picks up the phone to call the patient’s family, who is unable to be with their loved one at the hospital.
Emotions are high, and new information about ways to deal with this new coronavirus fly around, changing from day to day. Meanwhile, Boll works hard to make the best decisions he can, based on his 20 years of experience in the field.
Doctors are trained to deal with crises, but in a world of face masks, telemedicine and quickly evolving care requirements, every day brings its own set of challenges.
“Each day seems to be the equivalent to two to three months of work,” said Boll, who is the associate director at UPMC Susquehanna’s Williamsport Family Medicine Residency. “It’s forced us all to do things that are outside of our comfort zone in order to provide the care that is needed.”
The changes in care and intensity of emotions have created what Boll calls “compassion fatigue.” This is coupled with a new type of work-flow and a disease the world is still working to fully understand.
Changes by the hour
As a physician, Boll has grown accustomed to being the most informed person in a room. But in the world of unknowns and rapidly changing facts, it’s hard to keep up.
“When this initially occurred, you could almost get more up-to-date information off of an internet site than you could out of a medical journal,” Boll said.
Medical articles often take months to write and publish, Boll said, but new COVID-19 trials and statistics were published in the news every day, even changing by the hour. As doctors and nurses were spending their days working to keep up with the changing demands, the public was reading the news.
“Someone may be able to get on a news site and see the results of a trial in another part of the world and see it before we are even able to read it,” he said. “That’s very upsetting.”
The Williamsport and Lycoming County region have managed to make it so far without an overwhelming surge, Boll said, but dealing with heightened emotions among patients and family is draining.
Many hospital systems have closed their doors to visits from family and friends during the pandemic, increasing the level of stress and depression among patients.
In addition, Boll said he has had to learn new ways of treating patients who are unable to come to the hospital. Visiting with a patient in person rather than over the phone or through video makes it easier to read physical cues and create an informed diagnosis, but he can’t do that now.
Times of crisis bring “out the best and worst in people,” Boll said. The increased stress has an effect on health care workers and patients alike.
“I’m concerned about burnout,” Boll said. “There is enough support from people behind me that I’m OK. I don’t think that’s true for everybody.”
The ‘new norm’
Preparing for the long-term changes brought on by COVID-19 are daunting, Boll said. A pandemic that many thought would be gone within weeks now may be a recurring issue for a year or more.
Boll expects to wear a mask at work for the next six to nine months, if not longer. Vaccines can take years to perfect and for now he expects to settle into a “new norm.”
The goal for the future will be to ensure that Lycoming County doesn’t see a surge, as many other areas of the state have seen. As a smaller community, for the hospital to get even 50 patients at a time may be hard to handle.
But cases in the county increased slowly, giving the hospital time to perfect a system for dealing with them and testing new patients.
“We’re going to be probably dealing with this for a long time within our community,” Boll said. “We’re going to have ups and downs with it.”