Special Edition

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Our Albany partners are an epicenter for the coronavirus

At least in the Albany area, which has become a hotspot in Georgia for coronavirus infection, things appeared to start comparatively quietly. Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, our longtime partner in our statewide model for medical education, had two confirmed cases. But there had been two funerals at two churches with a common funeral home and in about a week there was a large influx of seriously ill patients who met the criteria for “person under investigation” for COVID-19, says Dr. Steven Kitchen, senior VP and chief medical officer of Phoebe, an OB/GYN by training and a 1985 MCG graduate. “We knew at that point, there was something different going on here,” Dr. Kitchen tells us. They also knew that some of the patients were at these funerals. Phoebe and its staff has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19 ever since. By late this week, they were reporting 217 positive cases, 16 deaths, 31 positive patients in the hospital and 95 inpatients awaiting test results. This all is happening within the hospital’s primary service area of five counties and about 172,000 people. To put that in perspective, we’ve had 25 positive cases with more than 500 tests pending and six patients hospitalized. Phoebe has been slammed. 

1985 MCG graduate Dr. Steven Kitchen is helping lead the charge

While there have been reports of just who is at high-risk for this virus, Dr. Kitchen says their patients have no clear demographics. “We have individuals in their 30s, 40s, even in their 20s, who have become seriously or critically ill, required admission to intensive care and a significant percentage of those are requiring mechanical ventilation.” But there are patterns: patients are admitted to the floor, then rapidly and dramatically their oxygen levels drop and they need critical care. Phoebe has a total of 38 ICU beds, and they started by trying to keep these patients all on one floor and in one ICU. In a matter of days they exceeded capacity and took over another floor and another ICU. Determined to keep their remaining surgical ICU for others, they set up a makeshift four-bed ICU in the post-anesthesia recovery unit. “You can quickly exceed the capacity of your hospital, so we are doing everything within our power to meet patient care needs, but there is no question our facility is really stretched and taxed at this point,” Dr. Kitchen says.

Coronavirus pushes Phoebe to its limits, but their staff refuse to give

There is also no question that the staff at Phoebe has responded phenomenally. Like I like to remind you, our MCG faculty, staff, residents and students, who step up to whatever the challenge, our partners in medical education at Phoebe and across the state are doing the same. “What we have observed is our staff does not run away from harm’s way, they run toward harm’s way,” Dr. Kitchen says. “It’s incredible how people rise to the occasion.” While hospital leaders like Dr. Kitchen work to ensure the staff is protected, they are witnessing unprecedented teamwork. “Until you are on these wards, walking the floors and you understand what the physicians and nurses, the condition they are trying to operate under it…,” and then the articulate Dr. Kitchen stops a moment before he completes his thought: “It makes a lasting impression.” When I was talking with him, I was also impressed, but not surprised. Because, hospitals and physicians and staff across the state, like those at Phoebe — out of the goodness of their hearts and their commitment to the future — are also an invaluable part of our team that educates of one of the largest medical school classes in the nation: 240 as of this fall. That alone speaks of their mettle. This virus may have met its match in South Georgia.  Thank you all for your relentless service.

MCG students at the Southwest Campus help with coronavirus screening

You know that old saying that one good turn deserves another. Dr. Doug Patten, associate dean for the Southwest Campus based in Albany, has seen the community response to Phoebe. “That is why you see a sewing plant basically spring up in a vacant area of a building Phoebe owns so volunteers can come and sew masks.” One church has turned a production studio into a drop off center for protective gear that others want to share with Phoebe. That is the synergistic greatness that emerges in tough times like these. Typically up to about 40 of our third- and fourth-year students are living and learning with these professionals at the Southwest Campus along with many other students who do clerkships with the myriad of supporters down that way from Tifton to Americus to Cordele to Thomasville to Moultrie, up to Columbus, LaGrange, Macon and Senoia (just south of Atlanta). While Dr. Patten misses them poking their heads in his office at this moment while clinical experiences are on hold, many are not really gone. Danielle Turner, Class of 2020 who just matched in pediatrics at Baylor, and juniors Hunter Parmer and Bria Carrithers, for example, have been working with the Southwest Georgia Health District, under the leadership of district health director and 1986 MCG graduate Dr. Charles Ruis, screening for coronavirus. Our students are helping track down those who have come in contact with anyone who tests positive, a great service in our efforts to contain. Our students don’t want to sit on the sidelines, Dr. Patten reminds us.

Classes of 2021, 2022 help those who are helping others

“Being in medical school during this storm gives us a chance to participate in a unique way,” says Class of 2022 President Christian Cullen. “In the future, people will ask ‘What were you doing then?’ I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, we studied for STEP 1, but I also babysat for an ER doctor while they were on the frontline or I helped answer a call from a grandma who was confused about whether her symptoms were coronavirus.” How is that for impressive? Class of 2021 President Susan Brands, says she and her colleagues are definitely concerned about the impact this pandemic has had on their clinical experiences and about the general chaos being experienced by some of their classmates with family members who have tested positive so they are self-quarantined and/or taking care of their family. And yet she sent an email to her classmates Tuesday about what they could do for the community and by 1 p.m. they had a spreadsheet and were calling tattoo parlors and nail salons looking for masks and gloves and quickly set up a go fund me account to put together care packages for health care workers in our area. “We got the idea actually when I spoke with a physician who was telling me how low morale has been in hospitals across the CSRA,” Susan says. “Health care workers are feeling as scared as so many of us are, and yet they continue working. The physician said she was eating with a pregnant nurse who was feeling particularly anxious, she shared her cookie with the nurse, and the nurse started crying because it brightened her day so much. This story inspired us to try to provide even a small hint of optimism in the lives of these health care workers who are sacrificing so much for all of us. We have no idea how much money we’ll be able to raise, but we want to give it our best shot. If we can brighten even one health care worker’s day, whether it’s a nurse, a technician, a therapist, or staff, it will be worth it.” I don’t think I can add anything to that but a thank you and I am proud of you to Susan, Christian and their classmates.

Freshman class misses actual classes but are making alternatives work

Some of our first-year students, who still love going to class, have found their rhythm of class then study disrupted, Class President Idris Ali says. But real-time, interactive sessions, with great educators like Drs. Carol Nichols, Anna Edmondson and David Kozlowski have been pretty interesting, he says, and have gotten them all to think outside that box for everything from learning to keeping up with each other. “The first few days made us realize that what made medical school great was our classmates,” he says. Again, nothing left here I need to say.

Students are mostly MIA but the spirit is not on the Southeast Campus

Back down south, Dr. T. Wayne Rentz, associate dean for the Southeast Campus, is also missing students the likes of these. “It’s an odd feeling,” he says of this campus with anchors in Brunswick and Savannah and a normally bustling student business. “To have a busy, ongoing teaching service on the campus one day and then turn into a ghost town the next day is just odd and strange.” But like on the other side of the state, our students want to be in the mix even if they can’t be in the clinics. In talking to everyone for this special edition of the Dean’s Diary, we heard a lot of positives about the new pandemic elective that will help meet some of the clinical requirements for students as it helps provide more real service to others and insight to them on what we all face at this moment. We also heard a lot of rave reviews generally about the Office of Academic Affairs and its agility and support in this definitely unusual time.

Third-year students in Rome help with coronavirus screening

Up to our more northern corners of the state and to Dr. Leonard Reeves, associate dean of the Northwest Campus based in Rome, we find another coronavirus hotspot. Reeves who definitely knows how to tell a story, says they think their surge came from a work-related exposure of one spouse, the infection of the other who sings in a church choir and was part of a performance at a huge church before he knew it, and soon the Bartow County spike happened. There have been a handful of cases in nearby counties like Floyd and Whitfield as well. Dr. Reeves, a longtime family physician, agrees the social distancing and sheltering in place are some of our best defenses against the virus that has permeated our lives. He and his wife Terri Brown can’t even go see their youngest son in Athens tomorrow on the occasion of Will’s 31st birthday, but that is OK in the context of dealing with the game changer coronavirus has turned out to be as long as everyone stays healthy, he says. Change is here on many fronts, and Dr. Reeves hopes that some of it will ultimately be for the good, like reminding more of us how much others matter, a lesson we could have more safely learned from some of our students. Like those further south, 10 third-year students based in Northwest Georgia are working with another MCG graduate, Dr. Gary Voccio, director of the 10-county Northwest Health District, to help with their coronavirus testing. “They love it and they feel like they are actually doing something to help the community as a result,” Dr. Reeves says of Daniel Alligood, Rebecca Keipper, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Wesley, Raymundo Bustos, Elizabeth “Lib” Lockett, Nick Forrister, Chloe Super, Gary “Mike” Mallow, Emily Hammond and Keelan Passmore.

Creativity, resilience are winning in Athens

Over in Athens, in this online, virtual educational world in which we are living at this moment, first- and second-year students are still participating in their small group sessions via a live Zoom meeting and faculty are hosting virtual office hours. Large group sessions are also being handled remotely, including online anatomy sessions. Outside these virtual venues, our students are practicing social distancing as well. “I know that myself and other classmates have found a variety of ways to pass the time: arts and crafts, trying out new/complex recipes, and a fun one is a Netflix watch party—a service to watch movies online with a group of people,” Andrew Block, M3 class president at the AU/UGA Medical Partnership tell us. We find in Athens, what we find across our state: MCG students and faculty who are making medical education and their own lives work, just differently. “The last few weeks have certainly been challenging for each of us, but by uniting together we have accomplished so much in so little time,” says Athens Campus Dean Shelley Nuss. “Despite circumstances that break the bounds of our experience or expectations, I have seen countless examples of creativity, resiliency, and sheer grit in action over these past few weeks.” Well said.

Georgia is our campus

Finally today, I just want to say again how proud I am of each of you for, as Dr. Kitchen says, embracing these difficult times. Many of your jobs are tough even on a great day and these are challenging days. I hope you will take a few minutes today to acknowledge the scope of your impact and, as Dr. Nuss says, your resiliency and grit. I hope you also will remember that “Georgia (really is) our Campus” and our priority. I can never thank enough individuals like Drs. Kitchen, Ruis and Voccio who are living proof of MCG’s impact on our state, and students like Susan Brands and her classmates who are living proof that will continue. I have to share just one more MCG connection to this viral crisis. We talked a while back about how 1985 graduate Dr. Jacqueline Winfield Fincher, an internist who has served Thomson for more three decades, is now president-elect of the American College of Physicians. This week she was appointed to the Primary Care Provider Committee of Gov. Kemp’s Coronavirus Task Force. Her classmate, Dr. Ben Watson, a Savannah geriatrician and Georgia Senator who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chairs that committee. Thank you all. Take care of you and yours out there.

Upcoming Events

April 17 – The Raft Debate, the annual fun, educational deliberation of which type of doctor should get the only raft on a sinking ship, sponsored by the MCG Alumni Association, 6:30 p.m., Harrison Commons. CANCELED.

April 24-26 – Alumni Weekend featuring the MCG Dean’s Reception and Alumni Association Banquet, 6 p.m., April 24 at the Augusta Marriott; Campus Discovery Tours, 9:45 a.m., April 25, starts at the Summerville Campus; President’s Cookout, noon, April 25, D. Douglas Barnard Jr.  Amphitheater, Summerville Campus; Reunion Dinners, 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner, 9 p.m. Alumni After-Party, Augusta Marriott; MCG Emeritus Club Breakfast, 9:30 a.m., MCG Alumni Memorial Service, 10:30 a.m., both in the J. Harold Harrison M.D. Education Commons. POSTPONED

April 29 – MCG Faculty Senate Awards, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Lee Auditorium. WE ARE EXPLORING OPTIONS.

April 30 – President Keel’s State of the University Address, 11 a.m., Maxwell Theatre, Summerville Campus.

May 7 – Hooding, 2 p.m., Bell Auditorium. Reception follows in the Old Medical College building on Telfair Street. WE ARE CURRENTLY LOOKING AT OPTIONS

May 8 – Graduation, 2 p.m., James Brown Arena POSTPONED

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