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'I Can See Past The Masks': Inside One Doctor's Efforts To Keep Health Care Workers Afloat

Dr. Jay Kaplan at an LCMC nursing station, thanking staff on his knees.
Courtesy Jay Kaplan
Dr. Jay Kaplan at an LCMC nursing station, thanking staff on his knees.

After 41 years as an emergency medicine physician. Dr. Jay Kaplan knows a disaster when he sees one. And he knew early on that the coronavirus was going to be bad.

He treated a few patients back in early March who were ill, but didn’t meet CDC protocol required for COVID-19 testing at that time. They had not traveled to an affected area, so no test would be done. And then it began to spread with ferocious speed and outside populations most at risk, such as seniors and those with underlying medical conditions.

Kaplan, 71, is the medical director of care transformation. He and his colleagues at the five hospitals in the LCMC system watched as facilities were quickly flooded with patients, putting the system in danger of running out of beds and ventilators. Health care workers were working full bore in long shifts and under great stress. During his rounds and checking with staff, Kaplan ramped up wellness sessions at nursing stations and emergency units to bring care to the caretakers.

“I can see past the masks,” he said. “I pay attention. I listened. I see a nurse across the room and her eyes teared up. You can see the pain.”

He’s taken his background in employee wellness programs, visiting all five hospitals (University Medical Center, West Jefferson Hospital, New Orleans East Hospital, East Jefferson Hospital and Touro Infirmary Hospital) to meet and offer service to those working the front line.

He talked with a lab director who, after working 12-hour shifts, went home to her two children stressed out from being home from school.

“Her former golden child was acting out,” he said.

Kaplan told her what services were available through the hospital and advised her to be proud of the good work she was doing and gave her his cell number. He would listen.

He’s also accepted loads of Facebook friend requests.

The main thing they needed to know, Kaplan said, was to realize they were helping people who needed them most — and they should be proud. Patients don’t have family with them in the hospital, and the hand-holding and comforting words they offer are precious. He says medical workers often concentrate on who they couldn’t save, and not the ones they helped. 

To bolster team spirit, UMC set up a fund for environmental service workers who clean the facilities and transport workers who get patients to the hospitals. He talks about emergency medical staff like a team whitewater rafting. Everyone on the boat is important.

In one wellness session, he was pictured on his knees at a unit visit, bending down to express his gratitude. And he reads a poem he’s written about coronavirus.

Rachel Nickel is an ICU nurse at University Medical Center. She was impressed with Kaplan’s willingness to share his own emergency experience. And she especially appreciated his poem and the updates on the latest progress reports.

“He was very open about where he’s been and what he’s done and what he’s experienced, and he shared that with us as well,” she said. “It does really put into perspective what you’re dealing with. He was great. Really great.”

Kaplan says what troubles him is this pandemic is a marathon with no end in sight. And he’s not sure what the exact toll is on health care workers. The state health department is not tracking coronavirus rates on staff, and there is no treatment.

He says the massive unemployment caused by the stay-home orders will likely trigger heath issues, but he steadfastly approves of physically distancing from each other and keeping schools closed. He hopes it will remain in place for months.

“We are truly in the valley of the shadow of death," he said. "I don’t think I’m immortal anymore.”

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When Corona Comes Knocking

By Jay Kaplan

Death has always been around us

     on a bad day we felt it seize a patient from our care

          many good days we could feel victorious and look the other way

Now death is our greeter as we walk in to work

     sometimes we see it walk in the door

          other times it is wheeled in

     sometimes death announces itself upfront

          other times it’s more subtle giving us the hope of being able to defeat it

          then crushing our dream with irreverent gusto

My friends

     my colleagues

I see your sadness through your goggles and masks and face shields

I sense your grief through your isolation gowns

I feel your fear even as you try to hide it

          And I feel my sadness

     my grief

     and my fear

     which I too try to conceal

We journey on

True soldiers of healing

     this is rough terrain we’re in

     and there are no foxholes to hide in

     and no way to take cover

     we have no tanks and no big guns and scant armor

Our only ammunition is our caring hands and our searching minds

     as we try to devise strategies for survival

           of our patients

          and ourselves

Reinforcements for our side are few

     And we know that our casualties will rise more than we could ever fathom

This time we have no magic bullets

So what to do

We can look into each other’s eyes and see our strength and determination

We can speak with hope and faith that we will get through this together

We can hug each other even if we are 6 feet apart

We can be grateful for and celebrate every battle won and take that in deeply

     and know that our actions have made a difference We have been drafted without warning

And we are on the front lines fighting with every ounce of strength we have

Not knowing how long this fight will last

Victory must be redefined

     if fewer people die than expected we will know we have done well

And if that doesn’t happen

     we will take solace in having fought hard and given everything we could

We will find our way through this wilderland

We will guide others to the other side of this tragedy

We will know that we are a band of brothers and sisters connected forever

     by our spirit and our passion for helping others live

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