Dr. Sameena Salcin has begun her career as a resident physician at Northeast Georgia Medical Center with “a year full of challenges,” she said, as she has been admitting five or six COVID-19 patients per shift as the pandemic continues through its ninth month.
“The mental, emotional and physical drain that this pandemic has had on health care workers is quite astounding,” Salcin said. “I think there’s an overlying layer of stress in the hospital that didn’t exist before.”
Salcin, who is from Atlanta, began her internal medicine residency at NGMC in July 2019 as part of the first group of residents in the hospital’s graduate medical education program. She has most recently been working the night shift at NGMC, admitting patients from the emergency department, which she said has been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
“That’s all we’re seeing coming out of the ER, is just tons and tons of COVID,” Salcin said.
She arrives at the hospital at about 7 p.m., then begins admitting patients at about 9 p.m. until 6:30 a.m., she said. Then, she meets with the day shift team before leaving at about 7 a.m.
The hospital has stayed near capacity in recent weeks — NGMC Gainesville had 26 available beds on Monday, Dec. 21, while the Braselton hospital had 12 beds.
Patient numbers at Northeast Georgia Health System facilities have set several records in recent weeks, and as of Monday, Dec. 21, 272 were being treated across the health system. That number is just below a peak of 279 set on Saturday, Dec. 19.
COVID-19 has been hard on many, but for these frontline health care workers, its effects are an everyday reality. Over the next two weeks, we share the stories of a few of those who have risen to the occasion and done their jobs well in the face of unmatched pressure professionally and sometimes personally. We need heroes in this battle, and through their dedication, they have shown us what that looks like. We worked with Northeast Georgia Health System to identify those we are profiling, and this series is being made available free to nonsubscribers. Thank you to our subscribers for making our work possible. If you are not a subscriber, please consider supporting our work by subscribing to The Times. If you have a story about a frontline health care worker who has made a difference, please submit your story to firstname.lastname@example.org. For other stories in this series, visit gainesvilletimes.com/hometownheroes.
NGHS has set up an overflow treatment space in a gym at Laurelwood, a mental health facility on the Gainesville campus. The Gainesville hospital also has a 20-bed mobile unit near the North Tower, and the Gainesville and Braselton hospitals have tents outside the emergency departments for extra space.
Salcin said the limited bed space is concerning for all patients and providers, whether a patient has COVID-19 or not.
“I think what people fail to realize, is yes, there’s a pandemic going on, but there are also people who are suffering from medical events that happen every day — strokes, heart attacks, car accidents, things like that, that require hospital care,” she said. “… We’re running out of beds. We’re running out of beds here for people both with COVID and with other day-to-day things that we treat in a hospital setting.”
The pandemic has brought uncertainty and stress to the lives of health care workers both inside and outside the hospital, she said.
“We all feel like we’re working under very unsure conditions. Personally, I know that every day when I go into work, I don’t know, is this the day that I’m going to get COVID? Is this the day that I’m going to go to work and go home and I’m going to make my husband sick, or my family members sick?” she said. “That has really severe mental and emotional consequences. To have that kind of drag on and on for month after month, it’s exhausting.”
While availability of personal protective equipment has improved since the beginning of the pandemic, in some cases making health care providers feel safer, she said the new protocols have been another challenge to navigate.
“If we have a sick patient who is deteriorating quickly, it can take a lot longer to get into their rooms and take care of them because you have to put all this PPE on — a mask, face shield, gown, gloves, and there’s a whole protocol and process in place for putting that stuff on and then taking it off,” Salcin said.
It can also be especially difficult to treat patients when the patients cannot visit with loved ones, she said.
“When people are ill, sometimes they can’t advocate for themselves, and having that family member present is very helpful,” Salcin said. “We are taking the time to slow down, to really listen to our patients, to listen to what they need and if possible, we try to get them an iPad or video visits with their families.”
Staff are also “trying to be a little more conscientious” about updating loved ones who cannot be in the hospital in person due to COVID-19 visitation restrictions, she said.
The emotional toll on health care workers has been difficult even for people who are used to stressful situations at work, Salcin said.
“Some of the toughest people I know at work who started off at the beginning of the pandemic feeling very resilient and very hopeful are not feeling so hopeful anymore,” Salcin said. “We as a community, we’re failing. We’re not wearing our masks. We’re not complying with social distancing and we see our numbers starting to go up again. It’s frustrating.”
Salcin said she has turned to family and colleagues for support over the past year. Outside of work, she said she enjoys cooking, spending time with family and friends, and outdoor activities, although some of those hobbies have been restricted this year.
“I’m fortunate in the sense that my sisters are also in medicine, and so we have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on and we know what each of us is going through on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “My husband is fantastic. And the other residents in my program have been great.”