With a viral pandemic claiming thousands of victims, upending our way of life, and threatening our future, we have never been so focused on the need for reliable health advice and quality medical care. Never before have we so deeply appreciated the sacrifices and risks frontline healthcare workers face on our behalf.
For months, people have applauded doctors in creative ways, from spontaneous cheers to donated meals. But we were curious about whom physicians themselves wanted to thank. We asked our honorees of our 2020 Top Doctors list (plus a few emergency medicine physicians, a specialty not followed by Castle Connolly, the New York-based research firm that compiles our list) to tell us about their heroes in this battle with COVID-19. Spoiler alert: They include all of us who are staying close to home. Comments have been condensed and edited for space
Dr. Yolanda Wimberly
Professor of Pediatrics, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, Grady Campus, Morehouse School of Medicine
My hero is Dr. Eric Flenaugh. He was an integral part of the Grady team that designed the care of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU. He has worked every day to ensure the patients are taken care of on the COVID-19 unit and has had great outcomes, with his patients able to walk out of the hospital after prolonged hospitalizations. He has done all of this without complaining, and his work ethic is phenomenal.
Dr. Eric Flenaugh
Associate Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Chief, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Morehouse School of Medicine
Four of us were on Grady’s COVID response leadership team. We had to restructure services in the hospital, manage patients, and set up a biocontainment area to prevent spread throughout the hospital. I do a lot of international education. I had been in Shanghai and outside Wuhan in November, so I had been hearing from some of the physicians I know there and from doctors in New York. They gave us some idea of how bad it is. We stopped elective surgeries, and the shelter-in-place shutdown took people off the streets. It didn’t stop people from shooting each other, but there were fewer accidents.
Right about the time we were planning the response, my daughter’s college suddenly shut down. She goes to North Carolina A&T. We got a notice that we had to pick her up that weekend, and we had a two-hour slot. We were just throwing things in the car.
The vast majority of our patients have been African American. We’re getting very good outcomes because it’s the type of population we’re used to serving. We understand the comorbidities. African Americans have more cardiovascular disease, renal disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and all of these risk factors play a role in the outcomes of COVID-19. Keeping that in mind helped us tailor our approach a little differently. At one hospital in New York, close to 80 percent of patients on ventilators died. I’d be surprised if 15 or 20 percent of our patients on ventilators have.
The city really stepped up. Some people didn’t like the lockdown, but it made a difference. It allowed us to stay ahead. We’ve had overwhelming support.
Dr. Kathleen Funk
Emergency Medicine Physician
My hero is Dr. Toral Fadia, Northside Hospital’s chief of psychiatry. I called her in January and asked if she would help us with a physician well-being project. I didn’t know this, but she was already reading very deeply about provider burnout, so this was something she’d already developed a passion for. As we were in our first couple of meetings, all this coronavirus stuff began to happen, causing us to shift gears. The pandemic has turned up the heat quite a bit. It takes a lot for us [in the ED] to say we feel overwhelmed, but this changed the channel on the degree of anxiety that we feel here. Dr. Fadia is a kind-hearted, graceful, and spirited psychiatrist. She created programs to support our staff for anxiety and crisis management, including courses on managing stress, resource pages, and group initiatives, all available online. She lined up mental-health professionals within and outside of our institution to counsel our staff. She worked with hospital administrators to move these resources to the front page of our intranet.
The world is rapidly changing through this pandemic, and, in some ways, it will not be the same on the other side. The reverberating effects and psychological fallout will reach much further than the virus itself. Many of us on the front lines know our role and understand our risk. Almost daily, we have people thanking us for our efforts, which does help tremendously as we face the moral distress of the pandemic. Others, like Dr. Fadia, are inspiring because they look around, assess their superpower, and, without drawing attention to their efforts, find ways to get us through this crisis intact.
Dr. Toral Fadia
Medical Director of Behavioral Health
Even before the pandemic, 50 to 60 percent of physicians reported some symptoms of burnout. Now, we’re in survival mode. You’ve read about the New York emergency medicine physician who committed suicide. Physician suicide was already a problem prior to COVID-19. I sense it’s going to be more of a problem if we don’t openly address the trauma that these doctors are facing. These doctors are going into combat, and they don’t always have the necessary equipment. They don’t know what they’re bringing back home to their families. There’s so much unknown and uncertainty. We’re in unprecedented times.
It’s okay to not be okay. Doctors and nurses are much more comfortable giving rather than receiving, taking care of others rather than themselves, being the helper rather than seeing where they need help. At Northside, we’re asking, How do we create programs where they have to opt out rather than asking them to opt in for emotional support? We want to build it into their shifts, with buddy systems or virtual group sessions. Kathleen and I want to have a really strong, systematic approach that changes the culture a little bit, making it healthier and more open, where it’s okay to be vulnerable. We’ll get there.
Dr. Sofia Khan
Director of Emergency Services
Emory Decatur Hospital
My hero is Reginald Collins, an environmental-services technician in our emergency department. With the COVID-19 patients, there’s been a tremendous amount of death and a lot of cardiac arrests. When we’re in the room, it’s us, nurses, a respiratory therapist, and technicians. We’re all in it together, doing the work as a team. When we’re unsuccessful, we have a moment to be with each other and to be with the patient. But it’s the EVS folks who come in afterwards and sweep the death away. People are saying doctors and nurses are heroes, and I don’t disagree with that. But to me, Reggie is my hero because every time he cleans that room, he gives me hope we can do it again. The most incredible part is the man always has a smile on his face, even if you come out of a terrible case, he says, You did your best. We’re good. How can I help you? His smile makes me feel like I could be a hero. He believes in me. After you’ve had a cardiac arrest, there’s blood everywhere, there’s urine, there are open vials of medicine, it’s controlled chaos. He comes in with no despair. He cleans up that room so we can do it again.
Emory Decatur Hospital
I work from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. every night and every other weekend. Once the doctors serve the patient, I go into the room and set things back up for the next patient. I keep all the beds clean and made up. What I like best is interacting with people. Everyone comes in here sick, so you want to make them feel better by treating them nice. When there’s a heart attack, there might be trash all over the floor when the doctors are making decisions on how to work on the problem. I go in and keep the floors clean, keep things sanitized, keep everything rightful.
I’ve had family members come through here with COVID, too. I had two pass last week: my great-auntie and my auntie. They were up in age. I do a lot of praying—not only for my family but for all the other patients who come through here. I’ve got seven women in my house: my mom, who’s 80; my wife; four daughters; and a grandbaby. When I go home, I get undressed at the door and bag my clothes up. I don’t walk in the house with my shoes because my grandbaby is all over the floors. I ask God to shield me and shield my family from this virus and keep us safe. That’s the best I can do.
Dr. Jeffrey F. Hines
Medical Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and
Health Equity, Chief of Gynecologic Oncology
Wellstar Health System
My hero is Dr. Eduardo Molinary. First, he’s my personal doctor. In order to take care of me or someone in my family, you’ve got to be quite good. But what really sets him apart is seeing him get into the fray of this pandemic. He had an office-based practice prior to COVID-19, but when the call went out for more critical-care people to go into the hospital and truly be on the front lines, without hesitancy, he stepped right up. It was a sacrifice he made for himself and for his family. I like to use those two words: shared sacrifice. And the sacrifice is not being shared equally among everyone. There are clearly people who have sacrificed more than others. He is one of them. One of the things I want to see on the other side of COVID is a sense that people are willing to give up some things for the greater good, to see that maintained—when we do get to the other side.
Dr. Eduardo Molinary
Wellstar Pulmonary Medicine, Austell
In early March, we started seeing signs on x-rays—atypical presentations—so we suspected it back then. We were at the forefront, actually, of having a system to deal with it. In my office, we changed from live interaction to video or telephone visits. Now, we’re beginning to slowly open up office spots for patients who are not suspected of having or having had COVID-related symptoms. Each room is thoroughly cleaned after a patient departs, and everyone wears masks. It’s really changed how we interact with patients. We can no longer shake hands; it’s more impersonal. But we’ve gotten used to it. I think [telemedicine] will become a way of seeing patients in the future.
[With COVID-19 patients,] it’s scary, I have to tell you. Even with the protective clothing, you wonder if you’re going to be infected. There’s always that concern lingering in the background. At the beginning, I was exposed to an active patient, so I took it upon myself to quarantine in the basement for two weeks [to protect my family]. But patients are smart, and they appreciate the extra measures. It’s hard: These patients have no one around them, and they really appreciate it when we’re able to be with them in the room. It’s really an honor to be with them and serve as their liaison. We’re able to serve as a bridge between the patient and the family.
Dr. Gary W. Stewart
Director, Resurgens Foot & Ankle Center
My hero is Raphael Holloway, CEO of the Gateway Center [a nonprofit and shelter serving people experiencing homelessness]. We’re in the Leadership Atlanta class together this year. We were in a Zoom meeting, and everyone was kind of down. But Raphael was as happy as he could be. I pulled him off to the side and asked, How can you be this upbeat when I know what you do for a living? He said he felt energized because he felt like he was making a difference for his residents. He said he wakes up every morning excited to serve these men. You think about his word choice. He says “to serve them,” not that he’s helping them. These folks are commonly undervalued. Early on, people thought the homeless were going to be the ones to get COVID because they’re walking around on the street—like they would be the ones to silently spread the disease. But Raphael was determined for them to be part of the solution, and it turns out they were. The homeless population of Atlanta hasn’t really been an issue, and it’s through the work of people like Raphael.
CEO, Gateway Center
Our mission is to connect people who are experiencing homelessness with the support necessary to become self-sufficient and find a permanent home. We continued to provide services, and that was a tough decision. There was no way for us to shut down. We have 482 residents who depend on us. There are ways to be safe and still serve. I probably wash my hands 50 times a day at least. Our board chair, Jack Hardin, and I were invited to participate on the governor’s COVID task force committee for the homeless and displaced, led by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. We all knew testing was going to be important for those experiencing homelessness because hospitals were overrun. Tom Andrews of Mercy Care secured funding to offer testing to all of the large shelters in the city. So far, we’ve been able to test over 600 individuals, including our staff. We’ve had 10 positives, including eight who were asymptomatic. All were quarantined and have recovered. We opened an isolation and quarantine hotel in early April, and now, we have another hotel for people who have health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes that put them at high risk. Atlanta’s homeless community has had a very low prevalence of COVID-19. Our rate is a little less than 2 percent, while other jurisdictions are between 10 and 25 percent.
This virus really started with people of privilege and access. The homeless community was not the first to be infected. People worried the homeless might give them COVID-19, but, in fact, the danger was the other way around. Some people thought I was a little crazy, but now, everyone recognizes that we did the right thing by being present and continuing to serve. Ultimately, this pause has made us feel a level of connectedness with each other. What I do impacts someone else. If we function collaboratively instead of independently, our communities will get stronger.
Dr. Thomas Chacko
Pediatric and Adult Allergist/Immunologist
My hero is Dr. Anurag Sahu. We’ve played basketball together over the years. He is a very altruistic guy. He works at Emory at the Coronary Care Unit, but he’s also going to a different Emory hospital because they don’t have coverage. He volunteered to do it. Who actually volunteers to work at the ICU now? Every day, those guys are putting themselves at risk. Really, it’s like a war. He makes us count our blessings.
Dr. Anurag Sahu
Director of the Coronary Care Unit
Emory University Hospital
Every day, for the first week or so, one of our ICUs got completely filled with COVID-19 patients. Every day, we’d move other patients out. We had to start canceling surgeries and procedures, heart surgeries, liver surgeries, gallbladder, whatever it was—unless you were going to die within 24 or 48 hours without surgery, pretty much things came to a grinding halt. . . . A new diagnosis of breast cancer? Your surgery was on hold.
While reading cardiac ultrasounds, I observed a string of COVID-19 patients who suddenly had massively dilated right sides of the heart, which suggests a large blood clot in the lungs. When you think of COVID-19, you expect respiratory failure. But we learned this is also a clotting disorder. It also causes renal failure in proportions that haven’t been seen before. It’s a remarkably multisystem disease. One woman came in and was on the breathing machine but stable. She was getting all the right medicines. You’re thinking she’s going to get better. Then, all of a sudden, she is in shock, probably from a clot in the lungs. We did CPR and used every drug in our arsenal. But, shortly after, she died anyway. You feel so helpless despite literally doing everything. It marks one of the saddest moments of my medical career.
In truth, the people saving the most lives are the ones who are staying home and social distancing. That allows us to take the sickest patients without being distracted. It allows our teams to get a bit more rest. It allows us to save our medical supplies. By staying home and practicing social distancing, you will save more lives than me being at work.
Dr. Shazib Khawaja
Tanner Heart & Vascular Specialists
My hero is Becky Holmes, RN, who works with other amazing nurses in the intensive care unit. There are several healthcare heroes in the war against COVID-19 in West Georgia, but Becky has truly gone over and above the call of duty. She has always been one of our biggest patient advocates and family supporters in addition to being a superb nurse. Unlike any other medical illness, COVID-19 poses unique challenges and excludes visits from family members. Becky has FaceTimed with family members for patients to say their final goodbyes.
Becky Holmes, RN
Intensive Care Unit
Tanner Medical Center, Carrollton
I work in the ICU because I like the challenge. I like being with someone who is at the brink of no return and then bringing them back. The ER is chaos. The ICU is considered controlled chaos, organized chaos. When the pandemic started, we were very emotional. Some of us would get together and have prayer before we started our shifts. Now, we leave our contaminated clothes at the hospital, but at first we weren’t doing that. I would strip in my car. I actually got caught on the camera in the parking deck. I just waved to Security.
It takes two or three days before you feel normal after you’ve been on for a stretch. You’ve worn a mask so long. You’re breathing your own CO2 continuously. You come home with headaches. You come home lightheaded, nauseated.
We have been an open ICU since 2003—which means we allow family members to stay at the bedside. And now, they can’t. The only eyes and ears they have are the staff. We become that family member at the bedside, holding their hands as patients struggle to survive, helping families make those decisions, crying with them. We’re not above crying. If we are, we shouldn’t be there.
It’s strange when you’re the one doing last rites at a patient’s bedside and you’re not Catholic. You’ve got a priest FaceTiming so you know what you’re doing.
We do allow compassionate end-of-life visits. One day, I brought in a patient’s son and daughter-in-law. The patient had lost his wife [years] earlier. The gentleman begged to come off the ventilator. He wanted to talk, even though we made it clear he wouldn’t survive. I left the room, so I don’t know what he said. When I returned, his son said, He’s fallen asleep but look at him, he’s smiling. I looked at the patient and said, No, sir, he’s not asleep. I think he’s reached your mom.
The Beyond is calling that soul. The best thing we can do is get out from the middle of it and let them find their peace. I haven’t seen anyone struggle.
We had a 57-year-old patient. She was talking nonstop and breathing like 50 times a minute. The strange thing is that these patients’ oxygen levels will be extremely low, but they’re not symptomatic. She’s talking and laughing and breathing really fast. We all looked at her and knew, You’re about to be intubated, ma’am. I said, Before I put you on life support, do you want to call your family? She FaceTimed her husband, her children, her grandbabies. She laughed and told them she loved them, not to worry, God has this. They prayed. She died within the hour. I had to call the family, and they just thanked me for letting them see her before we intubated her. I took her rings off and cleaned them, washed her purse, then put her things in a bag, and took it outside to her family at their car.
This has changed nursing. Some people I know already have walked away. We named ourselves the COVID Island. We have hung pictures of islands to keep our morale going.
This article appears in our July 2020 issue.