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Voices from the front lines


"It’s in times like these that true inner strength and bravery shine through” 

Tariq Ahmad, MD
Advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist, YNHH Heart and Vascular Center assistant professor, Section of Cardiovascular Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine
YNHH medical staff member since 2015

"With COVID-19, my work as a physician has changed primarily because I have this new barrier between patients and myself. Instead of seeing my patients in person, I must do clinic over the telephone or sometimes on video calls. And it’s really not the same. You sense things about patients during a face-to-face visit that you can’t sense calling them over the phone. My patients are very scared, and it’s difficult to assuage that fear over the phone.

I just finished almost a month in the CCU. If there was one word to describe the environment, it’s ‘fear.’ All the nurses are scared, the doctors are scared. And the patients are petrified because their family members can’t come in to see them. We try to call families as much as we can.

But the other thing I noticed was bravery. It’s in times like these that true inner strength and bravery shine through. That’s what I saw happening on the front lines every day. I saw true heroes – the nurses, the house staff, and the faculty – who stepped up to the highest ideals of the profession.

With COVID-19 we have seen at least 12 people at YNHH whose heart and lungs collapsed to the point of needing ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation therapy). It’s the most advanced level of support that we can offer patients. In general these patients have been younger – in their 30s and 40s – and it’s heartbreaking to see them so devastatingly sick. Some of them have died.

In my own team, the advanced heart failure nurses have stepped up in a way I couldn’t even imagine possible. They’re working 10 times as hard to make sure the patients are OK, with creative solutions. I am truly blessed to work with these heroes.

When I was first rounding in the hospital during the beginning of this pandemic in Connecticut, it felt like a war zone. I don’t think I ever imagined in my wildest of nightmares that we would ever have a situation like this. I was interviewing for medical school during Sept. 11 and that is the only thing that comes close to what we’re experiencing today. I remember the challenges we felt at that time. People were afraid and didn’t know how we would recover. There was a lot of sadness and anger during that time as well.

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on our heart transplant program. In fact, most centers across the world have dramatically cut down on their transplantation programs. Our team has been remarkable in this regard and we have tried to keep going. We’ve transplanted several patients who would not have survived otherwise and it’s a true testament to our nurses and partners in surgery, Drs. (Muhammad) Anwer and (Arnar) Geirsson.

Overall, I think I am incredibly lucky. I’m married to an incredible woman who is super understanding and supportive of what is going on. When I am on service, she has been doing her full-time job and taking care of our boys at the same time. And I couldn’t ask for a better group of colleagues and the HVC (Heart and Vascular Center) leadership, with Dr. (Eric) Velazquez and Francine (LoRusso), which has been exceptional throughout this crisis.

Overall, I am very hopeful we will get through this. Next year, we will remember this as a bad dream.”


“Adapt, improvise and persevere”

Jonathan Shalkey
Senior Protective Services officer
Years at YNHH: Six

“When I was in the police academy, an instructor told us, ‘Law enforcement and the military have many things in common, including the ability to adapt, improvise and persevere.’ That phrase came back to me recently. I’m noticing how my fellow Protective Services officers and healthcare workers are adapting, improvising and persevering during this crisis.

For a time, it felt like we were getting emails every hour with new rules and regulations, changing protocols and procedures, and we had to adapt. I used to go on to the nursing units during my rounds and walk around. Now, the doors to the units are closed, and staff don’t want us to walk in so we don’t get exposed. They asked me to just look in the windows, and they give me the thumbs up if everything’s OK.

This is an invisible enemy. As a police officer, you would get a description of the person who just committed a robbery or an assault. You’d be watching out for the big guy who’s armed. Now we have to be afraid of the patient from the nursing home. We might have a patient in the ED who’s combative, and they could have COVID-19 – you just don’t know. Or we’ll have a patient who rips out their IV, and we have to steady the person’s arm so the nurse can get it back in. I’m wearing PPE, and I’m taking my temperature before and after work, but it’s stressful.

I cope by coming home and walking my dog on the beach. And I spend time with my great nieces. My 10-year-old great niece wanted to come and write notes in chalk on the sidewalk for the healthcare workers. So we went to Shoreline Medical Center, the York Street Campus and the Saint Raphael Campus and she drew pictures and wrote notes thanking the heroes who work there. I was so proud of her. I also work with a great bunch of officers, and we have a good lieutenant, good supervisors. If we see someone who looks stressed out, we’re right there with them. That’s what we did as cops – we’d have each other’s backs. We keep our sense of humor, too. Some of the patients are really concerned, so I tell them, ‘Know what I look like under this mask? Brad Pitt.’ The nurses say, ‘When this ends and you have to take that mask off, boy, are they going to be disappointed.’

I noticed, after 9/11, how people would come up and thank anyone in uniform – police officers, firefighters, military personnel. Now I see our healthcare workers getting that, and they deserve it. I was at a gas station and there was a woman in scrubs pumping gas. Another woman shouted over to her, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Then she turned to me – I was in my uniform – and she said, ‘Thank you to you, too.’ That, and the masks people are making, the food people are donating and the thank you notes – it makes a big difference. You don’t feel like you’re alone in this.


“It was a great choice for me”

John Russo
CT scan tech
Time at YNHH: Five months

“After less than two months into training in the Saint Raphael Campus Cath (Cardiac Catheterization) Lab, I was reassigned to the York Street Campus Prone Team for six weeks. I’ve gone from learning a new modality in the Cath Lab to being hands-on with COVID-19 patients who are intubated in one of our ICUs.

Watching my coworkers at Yale New Haven Hospital perform with such a high level of professionalism and care keeps me going and reinforces my positive attitude. The ultimate motivation is when we stop proning a patient (putting the patient on his or her stomach to improve oxygenation) because they’ve been extubated and are on the road to recovery.

My wife, who is an RN at the YSC, and I are coping by going for scenic drives on our days off, FaceTiming with our kids, visiting with family via Zoom chats and, of course, watching Netflix. Our daughter is in the U.S. Air Force in Texas and any day now she’ll give birth to our first grandchild, a baby girl. Having to isolate from them is a dramatic shift in our lives. Not being able to hold my granddaughter until there is a vaccine scares me. It’s heartbreaking. During Sept. 11, 2001, I was working in midtown Manhattan as a marketing manager. Within a few years after 9/11, at age 40, I changed my career and entered school to become a radiologic technologist. Sept. 11 put me on a new career path as a healthcare provider on the front lines.

Being part of the Prone Team has dramatically altered my life forever. Interacting with the ICUs on a daily basis has really given me a front-row seat to witness the tremendous care and compassion that our patients receive here at Yale New Haven Hospital. The ICU staff has been so receptive to the Prone Team. The RNs are very enthusiastic when they see us, appreciate our efforts/skills and go out of their way to thank us for our contributions. The ICUs treat us like rock stars when we show up to prone a patient.

The support and encouragement that I receive every day from my future coworkers in the Cath Lab at the YSC has been amazing. They always ask me how I’m doing, offer words of encouragement and tell me they can’t wait for me to join their team.

Quite simply, my experiences during this pandemic have reaffirmed my decision to join Yale New Haven Hospital. It was a great choice for me.”