Med ’Canes on the Front Lines
Miller School alumni share their COVID-19 insights, stories and words of advice
By Priyanka Sinha
Miller School of Medicine alumni are on the front lines across the country in the battle against the coronavirus. While their comments are personal, the themes of gratitude, safety and compassion found in their words are universal.
Aaron Mittel, M.D. ’12, is a critical care anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, NY, treating patients with COVID-19. While his primary role is clinical care, he has also been involved in the logistical side of the department’s response where he was instrumental in developing alternatives to “traditional” ventilation, including splitting ventilators among multiple patients in an effort to save lives. While Dr. Mittel follows all safety protocols, he realizes having adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is a luxury and reduces his PPE use to ensure that others have the supplies they need. He finds that maintaining a semblance of cognitive “safety” in the form of exercise helps him manage the crisis.
Dr. Mittel acknowledges the wide range of sacrifices and suffering experienced by those who are not on the front lines, but have lost loved ones, or their income, or who battle a sense of disconnection during the pandemic. While health care workers deserve to be in the spotlight, he said, “Moving forward, I hope we can direct our attention to those who are battling this pandemic in other ways. I hope that society does not forget the personal and economic sacrifices we’ve all made to help save lives.”
Matthew L. Ciminero, M.D. ’16, is an orthopedic surgery resident at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The orthopedic department is managing a COVID-19 unit on what was once a postpartum floor. He has gone from fixing broken bones and replacing arthritic joints, to running codes, calling families about the untimely deaths of their loved ones, and treating patients battling COVID-19.
Dr. Ciminero said, “It is safe to say that the standard orthopedist does not routinely manage these issues. Due to my medical school training, my team and I are effectively treating patients at the epicenter of this pandemic. Thank you, UM, for preparing me for this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.”
Jessica Smith, M.D. ’02, is an emergency medicine physician and residency program director at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, R.I. Not only is she on the front lines caring for patients with suspected COVID-19 in the ER, but she is also responsible for training emergency medicine residents and relaying the latest information on the quickly changing guidelines on patient management and PPE shortages.
Reflecting on her own training, Dr. Smith said: “Emergency medicine prepares you to be ready for anything that walks through the door. COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history. My training tells me we will get through this, we will learn lessons from it, and next time we will be even more prepared. For now, I am reminded, ‘It’s about the patients.’” She added: “Coping skills are learned long before training, so I am grateful to have many in my arsenal. It is important to practice gratitude, focus on the good in any situation, and lean on family and friends for support.”
Graham S. Ingalsbe, M.D. ’13, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician at a busy medical center in Reno, Nevada. During this pandemic, he is treating critically ill patients who cannot breathe on their own with known and suspected coronavirus infection, as well as patients requiring urgent care from non-COVID-19 issues.
His words from the front line, “To anyone not directly facing this battle head-on, we need you. Because by this point the virus is everywhere, so we are all on the front lines. I need myself and my team to stay healthy and protected to care for the sickest of patients, and in order to do that we need every single person to sacrifice by staying at home and practicing social isolation. By protecting themselves they are protecting me and my team and my family.”
Kristy S. Whyte, M.D. ’15, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician at Emory Decatur and Emory Hillandale Hospitals in Georgia, keeping patients and staff safe through the pandemic.
Her words from the front line: “As ER physicians, we respond and stand tall in the face of disasters. My training at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and my residency program at Emory University, have prepared me to competently and confidently care for the critically and acutely ill with compassion and cope with the magnitude of the situation. For those not on the front line, please continue to stay home and socially distance for the betterment of yourself, your family and your community. Continue to love and cherish your family and friends!”
Rich Coia, M.D. ’10, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician and associate medical director at Rochester Regional Health in Rochester, N.Y., who is evaluating and treating patients with known and suspected coronavirus infection. He is taking necessary precautions by using as much appropriate PPE as possible, watching what he touches, frequently washing his hands, not touching his face, and assuming everyone is infected.
His words to the public: “Stay home! This is not a joke. It is not exaggerated. You can save lives by social distancing!”
Sawlar C. Vu, M.D. ’15, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician in Decatur, Ga., who is on the front lines treating patients with suspected COVID-19. His training at Jackson Memorial Hospital and Grady Memorial Hospital has taught him to deal with crisis and develop coping mechanisms.
“Sometimes coping means ‘I’m going to process this later, but right now I need to keep moving,’” Dr. Vu said. “I’ve been lucky that my co-residents and I have remained close. Sharing our stories is one way we help each other deal with the emotional toll.” His words to the public: “Think about the people in your life whom you love and who are higher risk: your parents, your baby nephew, your grade school teacher. If you are careless, you can create a chain of infection that can reach so many others. Also, tell your parents you love them!”
Vicky Egusquiza, M.D. ’87, is a pediatrician at West Dade Pediatrics. Her training at University of Miami and Jackson Medical Hospital is helping her cope with the pandemic, which she says is reminiscent of her early training when physicians were first encountering the AIDS epidemic.
“We treated the patients to the best of our abilities and did not question going into work every day. We realized this was part of what we signed up to do and we were honored to serve a population that was in need of our assistance. This epidemic is no different.” Dr. Egusquiza wants those who are not on the front lines to remember, “We are as human and thus as vulnerable as they are. We have families and fears, too.”
Jeffrey Livingston, M.D. ’93, is an otolaryngology specialist in Vero Beach, Fla. He tackles emergent and urgent ear, nose, and throat issues every day of the week, from head and neck cancer to acute infections, and also consults at the Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. “I am honored to provide subspecialty services to my patients in a time when access to necessary care is restricted or unavailable for many,” Dr. Livingston said. His medical team is keeping staff and patients safe through the pandemic with a range of protocols including pre-screening patients, employing telemedicine, and wearing full protective gear during urgent nasal procedures.
When commenting on his training, Dr. Livingston said, “The breadth of experiences I had during my 11 years at the University of Miami School of Medicine and residencies at Jackson Memorial Hospital have provided a solid foundation for anything and everything I might face on a daily basis.” His message to those not on the front lines: “Be patient and try to do your part in keeping social distance, while carrying on with all the best parts of your everyday life. This will eventually pass.”
Adrian Burrowes, M.D. ’00, has a message for his patients who generously donated N-95 and homemade masks, including homemade University of Miami masks with sleeves for HEPA filters.
“In the face of a worldwide pandemic and a national health care supply shortage, our patients stepped up and answered the call. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude by the selflessness of our patients. These acts of kindness unite us and make our country great!”
Ryan Kahn, M.D. ’17, was redeployed from obstetrics and gynecological care to cover one of the COVID-19 intensive care units at New York-Presbyterian / Weill Cornell Medical Center. While managing ventilator settings, sedatives, paralytics, and a multitude of medical issues for his critically ill patients, Dr. Kahn still tries to find other ways to help. “No task is too trivial for any member of the team; we all pitch in,” Dr. Kahn said. “We’ve been calling family members to update them on patients’ status, we’re placing lines, drawing labs and other tests, and helping prone patients be moved for transport.” While Dr. Kahn grapples with the overwhelming complexity of the virus’s impact on his patients and the devastation of the pandemic in general, he is hopeful. “We’ve had a few losses and setbacks, but also a lot of victories, big and small, and it’s been helping to focus on those. Despite the tragedy and sadness surrounding everything, a silver lining I’ve been focusing on is that there’s no doubt this experience will benefit my future patients from all of the skills and values I have learned on the front lines.”
Geeta Nayyar, M.D. ’03, M.B.A., has been educating the South Florida community and urging the public to stay calm and informed through this COVID-19 health crisis. She has written articles for the Miami Herald and appeared on WPLG Local 10 news. Her message to the public: “We are grateful for our frontline health care workers and wish you and your loved-ones health and safety during these trying times.”
Varshi Broumand, M.D. ’95, is chief medical officer of Christus Santa Rosa Hospital Westover Hills in San Antonio, TX, and is working with his team to keep the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. He recently donated 350 face shields to their local hospital. “The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has prepared me for all sorts of challenging situations as we dealt with many sick patients and had busy services when we were there in training. For those not on the front lines, if you have the means to donate supplies and equipment do so, and the best way to help is to practice social and physical distancing and frequent hand washing. The one word that comes to my mind with COVID-19 is HOPE.”
Christopher Ward, M.D., ’95, is the vice chair of emergency medicine for Steward Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton, MA. Dr. Ward is helping lead the Emergency Department team through the crisis, skills he learned in part through his training at the Miller School of Medicine in emergency medicine and subsequent work as attending physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“It is very easy to be negative, fearful, and stressed right now,” notes Dr. Ward, “Think of this time as an opportunity for many things: spending more time with family; reflecting on our lives, goals, and accomplishments; volunteering in our communities; helping to take care of each other, especially our older neighbors; re-examining what we might want for ourselves and our country after this is all over; improving our medical system, improving the care of our patients, and preparing for future viral outbreaks. Look forward to coming together as a community, being kind to each other, and enjoying life!”
Emmanuel Thomas, Ph.D. ’05, M.D. ’07, is the co-director of a diagnostic laboratory providing validated testing reagents and virus transport media to the Department of Pathology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. He has recently given national webinars on COVID-19 as part of his work with the American Liver Foundation and the American Association for the study of Liver Diseases.
Dr. Thomas leads a program to screen for RNA viruses, including HCV and HIV. He notes, “We have been able to cope with this current pandemic using validated strategies to prevent transmission and test for SARS-CoV2” – approaches that are based on his published methods to inactivate RNA viruses so they are no longer infectious. Dr. Thomas’s message to those who are not on the front line: “My wife is an intensive care unit nurse at a local community hospital in Miami, FL, taking care of patients sick with COVID-19. The prolonged and appropriate use of PPE in this current environment cannot be understated.”
Rachel Libby, M.D. ’16, is an emergency medicine physician and Linda Nied Prieto, M.D. ’90, is an internal medicine physician. Both are Miller School alumnae working on the front lines at Emory Decatur Hospital in Decatur, GA during the COVID-19 pandemic. They met when Dr. Libby spotted Dr. Prieto’s Miami pin.
Dr. Libby says of working in emergency medicine: “I am so proud of this profession and the courage my colleagues have shown. Also, I am humbled by all the support we’ve received.” Dr. Prieto adds: “This is what we do – we take care of those who are sick and in need of our expertise. Although this is the worse epidemic I have been through, I also worked in the hospital during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 90s and H1N1 in 2009. Stay safe!”
Melvin La, M.D. ‘14, is an anesthesiologist at UCSF in San Francisco, CA, who traveled to New York City, NY in April as part of an emergency COVID-19 response team. It was a homecoming for Dr. La, who did his residency and fellowship training in New York City. For four weeks, the team provided support to their colleagues at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Many of the patients they saw were treated in makeshift ICUs, where they used anesthesia machines as ventilators. “I witnessed the strength of an entire city coming together, cheering for us every evening, and sending meals to the hospitals every day,” said Dr. La of working on the front lines during this pandemic. “Even now that I’m back in San Francisco, my heart goes out to all the health care workers in New York who continue to fight this pandemic.”