Providing much-needed help

COVID-19 updates: Tales from New York City

DOs and osteopathic medical students working and volunteering in the American city with the worst COVID-19 outbreak share their experiences.

New York City is the largest epicenter of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the U.S., with estimated numbers of positive cases recorded at almost 135,000, and the number of deaths close to 10,000, as of 1 p.m. ET on April 22.

Words you hear from DOs and students in the area to describe their last month include “dire,” “challenging” and “heartbreaking.”

“It’s a little bit surreal,” said Army reservist Lt. Col. Darren Sommer, DO, MBA, MPH, who is currently seeing patients on the floor of a Manhattan convention center. “Everything took place so quickly. You’re walking down the empty street or walking through Central Park, and you look around and you wonder, ‘how did we wind up here?'”

Since March, The DO has featured Q&As from eight DOs fighting COVID-19. To read their stories, click here.

In commemoration of National Osteopathic Medicine Week, April 19-25, this week’s COVID-19 update features accounts from a group of New York City area DOs and medical students who are either on the front lines, or supporting those on the front lines, of this pandemic.

Army reservist DO deployed to Javits Convention Center field hospital

Though doing rounds on the floor of a convention center that has been converted into a field hospital for COVID-19 patients is far from standard, Dr. Sommer is no stranger to treating patients under unique circumstances.

Dr. Sommer is one of nearly 1,000 medical personnel at the convention center taking part in a mission that is the first of its kind. His prior experience practicing in new and makeshift hospitals in Afghanistan and Kuwait prepared him to tackle conditions like these, he said.

“The nice thing is that when it comes down to just you and the patient, health care is health care,” he said. “As long as the systems exist to provide the proper care, which they do here, it’s the same as any of the other hospitals I’ve ever worked at.”

Dr. Sommer is also the CEO of Innovator Health, a telemedicine technology company that creates devices for immersive remote physician care, as well as an assistant professor of medicine and technology at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine’s (NYITCOM) Jonesboro, Arkansas, campus. Currently he is almost exclusively tasked with in-person care at the Javits Center, but is still managing high-level company operations remotely as he is able.

Medical personnel setting up the field hospital at the Javits Center. (New York National Guard by National Guard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dr. Sommer founded the company in 2015 after recognizing the value of telemedicine while on duty in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, being able to reach out to colleagues and ask how they managed diseases or wounds he was less familiar with was crucial because hospital transfers there were extremely cumbersome, he said. So he has now created technology that allows physicians to be at patients’ bedsides virtually with diagnostic capabilities using cameras and digital stethoscopes.

“From an osteopathic perspective, my concern [in creating these devices] was, how do I interact with patients and build rapport through technology,” he said.

Dr. Sommer said that while telemedicine may not be quite as ubiquitous once COVID-19 runs its course, he still sees it playing a much bigger role in health care moving forward.

“Telemedicine was once seen by many as snake oil,” he said. “Now it has become a widely accepted amazing modality to treat patients. The evolution is unbelievable.”

Fourth-year med students volunteer at testing center and graduate early

When Amardeep Parhar, DO, and Elizabeth Luengas, DO, spoke to The DO in early April, they were both OMS IVs. Now, by virtue of a fast-tracked graduation from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine—Harlem, NY (TouroCOM Harlem) on April 17, they are both osteopathic physicians.

Over the last few weeks, Drs. Parhar and Luengas have been volunteering at a drive-through COVID-19 test site at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in New Jersey, swabbing patients and overseeing sample prep.

Amardeep Parhar, DO (left), and Elizabeth Luengas, DO, graduated last week from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. They have been volunteering at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site for the last few weeks.

Dr. Parhar said seeing his fiancée and some of his family members who work in health care on the front lines drove him to volunteer, and ultimately make the decision to graduate early. He’s hoping to start his residency—the internal medicine program at the same hospital where he’s been volunteering—early on May 15.

“I saw how much hospitals have been struggling,” Dr. Parhar said. “I’ve seen [my fiancée] going to work and coming home every day, and heard all of these crazy stories about her time in the hospital.”

Dr. Luengas, who plans to specialize in infectious diseases, matched into internal medicine at the University of Minnesota, but said she will be sticking around the New York area for the time being because she is of greater need there. She is still ironing out the details.

“We test many first responders and health care workers, so it has been very gratifying to be there for them much like they are there for the people of our community,” she said.

The full team at the NewBridge testing center in Bergen, New Jersey. (Photos provided by Elizabeth Luengas, DO)

Students at two New York COMs help replenish hospitals’ PPE

At the start of the pandemic, Willis Lin, an OMS I at NYITCOM’s Long Island campus, helped his SOMA chapter partner with an organization called PPE 2 NYC, which has been reaching out to Long Island businesses to gather PPE donations for health care workers in the area. But then he realized he could do more.

In 2015 as an undergraduate freshman, Lin founded a company called Serenilite, which produces stress therapy products for children with occupational therapy needs and patients undergoing post-operative rehab.

Using manufacturing connections he’d made while building up his company, he was able to donate 2,000 surgical masks to PPE to NYC, as well as 1,000 to each of NYITCOM’s campuses.

“Given the severity of the situation, I wanted to do my part,” he said. “I knew a manufacturer in China who I’ve been working with for my company, and she knew a mass distributor.”

Lin’s donation is currently in use at NYIT’s Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)/Hypermobility Treatment Center, which is open during the pandemic and going through supplies very rapidly.

“So many of the patients we treat in our center have co-morbid conditions that can put them at greater risk of COVID-19,” said Bernadette Riley, DO, the center’s director. “As per the new standards, we give everyone a mask. So we’re using masks for all staff and faculty and patients. We’re really happy with the donation.”

Across town at TouroCOM Harlem, OMS III students Tamar York and Sarah Fahmy started an organization called Behind Our Heroes. In addition to fundraising for and donating PPE, they are also providing grocery and pharmacy deliveries to hospital workers, food deliveries to hospitals, online tutoring services for children of hospital workers and pet care.

On April 14, they made their first PPE delivery. They provided 18,000 N95 masks, 5,400 surgical masks and 3,840 bottles of hand sanitizer to a dozen hospitals across the city.

“These are hospitals that desperately need PPE,” York told TouroCOM Harlem’s communications department. “The reason Sarah and I started [this] was we wanted to serve these … underdog hospitals. The masks were a huge blessing.”

Students video chat with Harlem nursing home residents

Adam Halpern, an OMS II at TouroCOM Harlem, had two goals at the start of COVID-19: find a way to get his fellow pre-clinical students engaged, and support the populations that have been the most vulnerable to the virus.

So he worked out a partnership with the Harlem Center For Nursing And Rehabilitation to pair TouroCOM Harlem students with senior residents for regular video chats. Then he sent messages out calling for volunteers, and got over 50 responses.

Adam Halpern, an OMS II at TouroCOM Harlem who organized the initiative to pair students with senior nursing home residents for video chats. (Photo provided by Adam Halperin)

The partnership is still in the early stages​, but so far four volunteers have ​been able to begin speaking with ​residents. These 15-30 minute conversations, facilitated by staff at the center, give residents a friendly face to talk to while they’re in isolation from both their family and co-residents.

“Our calls are providing mental and emotional support,” Steve Orellana, another OMS II at TouroCOM Harlem, said. “A lot of us are having difficulty reconciling studying while wanting to be there on the front lines with our fellow health care workers. This is a good opportunity to do something.”

Rita Kumar, OMS I, of TouroCOM Harlem, was born and raised in Harlem. Taking part in this initiative was a perfect way for her to engage with her community, she said.

“Even though we’re physically far apart, moments like this have brought us together, even strangers,” she said. “It’s difficult right now, but making a friend over Skype is nice, and being able to make an impact in his day means a lot to me.”

Halpern said there is potential for expanding this partnership to other nursing facilities in the same network, and that talks are ongoing.

“You go to medical school because you know you can affect change in the world,” Halpern said. “Finding opportunities like this where you can play a little part in the greater good is fulfilling and rewarding.”

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