First Responders Share Experience, Insight on Pandemic

Mitchell Marks

Three healthcare professionals discussed their experiences dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic during a Nov. 5 virtual meeting attended by Manchester students, faculty and alumni.

Titled “COVID-19 First Responders,” the panel-led discussion was hosted by Director of Alumni Relations Kylee Moss and moderated by senior biology-chemistry major Karly Eichenauer. The event featured insight from Dr. Angela Rogers, a 1996 Manchester graduate who is an expert in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Stanford University in Palo Alto; Dr. Josh Kline, a 1998 Manchester graduate serving as chief medical officer at Parkview Physicians Group in Fort Wayne; and Dr. Trent Towne, a clinical pharmacy specialist in infectious diseases at Parkview Regional Medical Center and associate professor of pharmacy practice at Manchester.

The meeting’s 35 Zoom attendees were provided a glimpse at the firsthand experiences these healthcare experts have gone through while battling the coronavirus. That experience, according to Rogers, has evolved since the onset of the pandemic in March. She explained that the first wave of COVID was accompanied by questions no one knew how to answer. It was a time of great fear and confusion throughout the healthcare profession because workers did not know how to best treat COVID patients and constantly worried about contracting the virus themselves, she said.

Kline agreed, explaining that his Parkview hospital took an overly cautious approach at the start of the pandemic due to a lack of information regarding how to handle the virus. Now that more information and knowledge is available, though, hospitals are better equipped to help coronavirus patients. Rogers explained that increases in the availability of personal protective equipment have allowed her to treat patients without worrying about bringing it home to her family.

While the three professionals expressed a positive outlook on how treatment and knowledge has progressed since March, they agreed there is still much they need to learn. “This is a very wily virus,” Towne said. “It doesn’t follow any playbook that we’ve had before, and I think that makes it really difficult to put a finger on.”

Rogers, Kline and Towne also expressed concern over the toll COVID has taken on healthcare workers across the country. “The mental health of our healthcare providers is very fragile right now,” Towne said, pointing to colleagues who have departed the profession because of how taxing the pandemic has been.

Rogers said that her friends have undergone PTSD therapy similar to that provided for torture survivors because they feel so bad when patients die under their watch. She explained how challenging it is to watch families have to say goodbye to their loved ones over Zoom and expressed how mentally damaging it can be on healthcare workers who are unable to help as much as they want to. “It’s devastating,” she said. “There’s been a lot of heartbreak.”

Moving forward, the three first responders are focusing on ways to continue improving the healthcare process for COVID patients. Kline explained how virtual healthcare meetings have been utilized throughout the pandemic and will continue to expand as the virus wears on. Additionally, he stressed the importance of building relationships between healthcare providers and the general public so patients do not feel hesitant to seek care. Doing so, he explained, will help doctors prevent serious COVID health complications like lung scarring, long-term breathing complications and heart inflammation.

Another challenging aspect for Rogers, Kline and Towne has been dealing with the polarization of opinions surrounding the virus. Towne explained how the politicized nature of the virus has caused some people to question its legitimacy, which has led to additional mental strain on healthcare workers. “We’re fighting two battles right now,” Towne said. “There’s the battle that we fight to keep our patients alive in hospitals, but then we’re also fighting this other battle with people not believing this is real.”

That fight against public perception has been difficult to handle as a COVID first responder, Rogers said. Kline agreed, explaining how challenging it is to build relationships and trust with patients and the community when some see the pandemic as a hoax or a ploy for hospital funding. “People don’t think it’s real until one of their family members is effected, and then suddenly that lightbulb is turned on,” Kline said.

Even in the midst of these stressful challenges, the three first responders have been able to identify silver linings. Each panelist agreed that seeing the way healthcare professionals and other community members have come together to fight the virus has been inspiring. Kline explained how everyone from ICU doctors to the workers who take out the trash from hospitals have played a role in combating the pandemic. “The biggest lesson has been the way we’ve pulled together as a medical community, and everyone has pitched in to do their part,” he said. “As a physician group, many of us that had not done hospital work in many years put on our scrubs and went in to help out.”

That willingness to help comes from a duty to care for patients and help protect the health and safety of communities, according to Rogers.

To accomplish that goal, the three panelists reiterated the three important steps everyone can do to mitigate the spread of COVID on campus and in our communities: social distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks. While Rogers recognized how inconvenient it is to wear masks, she also stressed how important it is if we hope to get the virus under control and protect those around us. Maintaining a cautious attitude is especially significant as students travel home for the holidays, according to Kline.

Despite the mental toll of the pandemic, Rogers said she has been grateful to serve as a first responder helping patients in need. “Being a part of the healthcare team during this time has been so amazing,” Rogers said. “Getting to be a critical care doctor and getting to take care of COVID patients has been one of the great honors of my life."