The COVID frontlines: How NYC medical doctors confronted the outbreak

As head of a prime intensive care unit in New York Metropolis, Dr. Lindsay Lief isn’t any stranger to emergencies. “If the organs are failing, and you must be positioned on life help, you come to us,” she mentioned.

When requested how a lot demise she truly sees, Dr. Lief replied, “Loads. Loads.”

However in March of 2020, she noticed extra demise than she ever thought potential, as COVID-19 stormed by means of New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell’s 5 South unit.

“We heard about hospitals kind of crumbling, like in Milan,” Lief advised correspondent Lesley Stahl. “And we heard from colleagues there that there have been sufferers actually dying on the flooring of hallways with no oxygen. So, we had that kind of hearth in our stomach that that was not the way it was gonna be right here.”

However by April it was a warfare zone, with fixed incoming.  The variety of COVID sufferers soared; ICU beds greater than doubled.

On the time of the COVID outbreak in Spring 2020, Dr. Lindsay Lief, a pulmonologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, noticed a rise in ICU beds from 100 to 250. 

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

“To have a whole lot and a whole lot of sufferers with the identical illness on maximal life help, I imply, I keep in mind strolling flooring to flooring to flooring,” she mentioned. The entire hospital had basically been was an ICU.

Journalist Marie Brenner’s new e-book, “The Determined Hours: One Hospital’s Battle to Save a Metropolis on the Pandemic’s Entrance Traces” (printed June 21 by Flatiron), describes New York-Presbyterian’s early heroic battle in opposition to the COVID pandemic.

There have been no vaccines, no antivirals.  Medical doctors have been confronting the completely unknown. “What they noticed in that hospital was so disturbing to them, a few of them nonetheless have not gotten over it two years later,” Brenner mentioned. “When medical doctors of any caliber, however of this degree of experience, are confounded by a medical thriller, they’re each enthralled, they’re in full adrenaline, however on some degree they’re additionally terrified.”

And overwhelmed. Lief mentioned, “I labored in all probability two months with out a break day.”

Stahl requested, “And then you definitely go dwelling at night time. Do you truly sleep?”

“No,” she mentioned. “Positively not. When it is quiet is when all these emotions and reminiscences of the sufferers, or the colleague who was in tears, that is when that each one comes again. I barely slept.”

But, she nonetheless helped her two younger boys with their homework over Facetime whereas struggling to run an ICU quick on beds, masks, and the whole lot else. 



Brenner writes: “Had New York-Presbyterian crumbled, the injury to the nation and the world would have been many occasions worse than what we did expertise.”

Karen Bacon knew she may die.  She was not simply one other 5 South COVID affected person; a Weill Cornell pediatric nurse, she was the primary healthcare employee handled there for the virus.

Stahl requested her, “Proper earlier than you have been intubated, what did you say to your husband?”

“‘I really like you,'” Bacon replied. “I mentioned, ‘You are actually my proxy. So, it’s important to stand in for me and make the selections, as a result of I am not gonna have the ability to make ’em for myself.'”

Dr. Lief mentioned, “She was sick, and it was very upsetting, in fact, for our workers to see one in all our personal within the mattress.”

Simply 30 years outdated and a newlywed, Bacon went from a chilly in February to a ventilator in March: “I feel the arduous half was going to sleep after which discovering out it is two-and-a-half, three weeks later,” she mentioned, having been in a medically-induced coma.

Like Bacon, each single Weill Cornell ICU affected person on the peak of April was intubated. All of the whereas, there was a ventilator scarcity.

“I’ve colleagues who to this present day nonetheless I do know discuss and take into consideration choices they made: who obtained the primary ventilator? who obtained the primary ICU mattress?” mentioned Lief.

Stahl requested, “Was there steering from the management of the hospital?”

“We have been advised they have been ready from steering from the governor,” she replied. “So in the meantime, my colleagues and I are, you recognize, making choices with our greatest medical judgment in thoughts. Nevertheless, you recognize, when somebody with COVID died, which was each single day, in fact, then you definitely suppose, ‘What if that they had gotten the third ICU mattress and never the fifth ICU mattress,’ proper?”


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Dr. Ben-Gary Harvey, a 5 South pulmonary and important care specialist, mentioned, “In early 2020, I personally believed that we have been all going to die.” And with out the right instruments to confront this thriller sickness, Harvey knew the one reply was innovation. He began with COVID affected person Susie Bibi, who had been on a ventilator for 4 months. “She was at demise’s door,” mentioned Brenner. “She had large holes in her lungs.”

Harvey had an unconventional concept: implanting a zephyr valve. Not too long ago authorised for emphysema, it really works by stopping leaks in broken lungs. However it had by no means been used on the hospital on a COVID affected person – and plenty of there rejected the enterprise as too dangerous.  “I figured that if I discovered the leak in Susie, I can put a few of these valves to stop air from going into that a part of the lung,” he mentioned.

“However here is the operative phrase there: If,” mentioned Stahl.

“Nicely, what’s the different?”

“She wouldn’t have survived?”

“I do not suppose so.”

It labored. Stated Harvey, “It simply offers me the satisfaction that we are able to change into artistic, that we are able to proceed transferring ahead, exploring new avenues.”

Brenner recalled Harvey saying, “If you happen to keep in your lane if you find yourself confronting this degree of medical thriller, you are not gonna resolve it.”

When requested about Bibi’s standing, Brenner replied, “She’s wonderful. She was in a position, with assist, weeks after she obtained out of the hospital, to be at her son’s marriage ceremony along with her medical attendants, to stroll down the aisle with folks holding her.”

With a lot demise, victories have been joyous celebrations.

Stahl requested Bacon, “What was it just like the day you left the hospital?”

“They’d everybody on the nurses’ station. They did the clap. They put a crown on my head. They simply gave me the best sendoff.”

Stahl requested Brenner, “You recognize, we’re sitting right here speaking as if this factor is behind us. Is it?”

“Completely not,” Brenner replied. “However it’s enormously inspiring to know that, within the hospital programs, there are those that care so deeply, and who did save lives, at monumental value to themselves.”

Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
A view of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital ambulance entrance through the coronavirus pandemic on Might 18, 2020 in New York Metropolis.

Noam Galai/Getty Photos

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Carol Ross.

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