Robyn Gartrell, MD, a pediatric oncologist and immuno-oncology researcher at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, volunteered at Columbia’s adult intensive care unit during the height of COVID-19. As she examined adult patients and worked to keep them stable, she saw how heart-wrenching it was for patients to be separated from their loved ones.
“A wife had not seen her husband in 42 days. He was critically ill and only at the beginning of his recovery, but all she wanted to do was see his face. I was able to connect them through an iPhone,” said Robyn. “With everything being so hectic, it was hard to see patients beyond the moment. But when you talked to the families, you learned more about the patient and who they were – it became more personal.”
Robyn understood how it felt to be apart from her loved ones. For six weeks, she stayed at a hotel that provided rooms expressly for healthcare and front line workers. “Having a place to stay near the city was immensely helpful,” she said. “I was close to work, I was safe, and, most important, I didn’t have to worry about potentially infecting my family or friends.”
Dr. Gartrell lauded the efforts of Columbia and organizations that helped sustain her and her colleagues. “Meals were provided for free, and that helped ALOT during the long days and nights,” said Robyn. “Organizations like Swim Across America, who provided meals and water (which was a highly sought after commodity), really came through in our time of need!”
Reflecting upon what sustained her during these challenging times, Robyn stated, “Simple things like FaceTime helped me connect with my family, while team debriefs with psychologists helped us talk about our experiences and put things into context.”
Dr. Gartrell has returned to her full-time work in pediatrics but looks back on the experience with profound awareness. “During my time in the ICU, I worked alongside colleagues deployed from other divisions like psychiatry and physical medicine. We formed a very cohesive team and used each other’s strengths and expertise to inform how we treated and interacted with patients and families. It was a real hands-on learning experience.”
Dr. Gartrell, along with researchers from Columbia and several NY institutions, will publish an academic study on their first-month experience with COVID-19. Their research will add to the growing body of data about the virus and help medical centers around the country.
Many thanks to Robyn for her work on the frontlines of COVID-19.
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