Intermountain ICU doc shares experience heading to New York City to help fight COVID-19

Intermountain Healthcare critical care doctor Dixie Harris couldn’t exactly pinpoint why she wanted to head to New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But she knew she needed to go.

“You just kind of feel this urge,” Harris, a pulmonary critical care physician for the Utah-based hospital system, told FierceHealthcare.

Harris is one of 100 doctors, nurses and specialists who flew this past week from Utah to New York to assist beleaguered and overwhelmed healthcare systems. She started her first overnight shift on Friday at Southside Hospital, a part of the Northwell Health System.

“I am able to allow the other doctors to stay at home, get sleep, rejuvenate,” Harris said.

Harris was spurred to volunteer to go to New York because “every ICU barely has enough critical care docs. I am already in a specialty of short supply.”

She added that the disease was in her “wheelhouse” as it affects multiple systems.

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Harris volunteered at a time when Utah isn’t seeing as many cases as it initially expected, making it easier for the 23-hospital system to lend a hand to doctors in New York. The Intermountain staff will remain in New York until April 30.

“We are running well under 50% capacity in our ICUs,” Harris said. “We have extensive planning for surge and our state still has not seen this exponential growth of cases yet.”

Intermountain isn’t the only health system that is sending help to New York. Among them, Cleveland Clinic announced that it sent 20 members of its staff to the disease outbreak epicenter. Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York, is sending two buses full of doctors, nurses and staff to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Harris and the team of 50 people from Intermountain included nurses, a pharmacist, respiratory therapists, internists and hospitalists. They landed Tuesday.

The team was split up between Long Island Jewish Hospital and Southern Hospital.

Harris has been moving through orientation and working with the head of the ICU for Southern.

She has already gotten some key tips to help Intermountain back home. For instance, Southern Hospital is having patients in need of high-flow oxygen to spend time on their stomach. The technique is called proning.

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“What that enables is the vast volume of the lung is in the back half or the chest so you enable that lung to ventilate,” Harris said. “We are asking patients on the floor, 'can you spend some time on your stomach?'”

What was remarkable to Harris as she moved through Southern Hospital was the amount of staff from all kinds of medical specialties that were there to help, including doctors who have never before practiced in a hospital.

“There is a plastic surgeon rounding on the medical team,” Harris said. The surgeon at one point stepped in to drain and abscess.

A hospital tent opened for non-COVID-19 patients is being run by second- and third-year family practice residents.

“It is all hands on deck,” Harris said. “I see this attitude of, 'we are here to help.'”