MGH doctor shares reality of working in an ICU during coronavirus surge

BOSTON — Social distancing in Massachusetts is keeping our hospitals from being overwhelmed, but the surge is still taking a heavy toll personally on front line health care workers.

Mass General Hospital Critical Care Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall shared the raw experience with Boston 25 News.

“Tears, every single patient we’ve intubated is crying," said Bankhead-Kendall. “They know what’s coming and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever seen.” Bankhead-Kendall compared the feelings before being placed on a ventilator akin to those felt when an airplane is going down.

“They have to convey that last message of love because it might be the last,” Bankhead-Kendall said.

Bankhead-Kendall says doctors are often stepping into the role of patients’ families now, standing by their sides and offering comfort in their darkest hours. She recalled the loss of a recent patient in her 70’s.

“As we were removing the ventilator… sorry,” Bankhead-Kendall paused, getting emotional. “I leaned down and whispered into this patient’s ear, a list of all the people that wanted her to know that they loved her. I sat there with her after we had pulled ventilator off for about 3 hours and held her hand. I never once let go of her hand. I put an iPhone in a plastic bag to keep it safe and I brought Frank Sinatra, it’s what she enjoyed and brought her comfort."

As the her patient’s vitals faded, she remembered something special happening.

“As a doctor I knew, ‘This is it... it’s coming,’" said Bankhead-Kendall. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow came on. It was a real blessing and an honor to be able to be there.”

When asked if these moments are things that have stuck with her, Bankhead-Kendall says it’s not something you can just turn off before going home.

“It’s sad and it’s hard," said Bankhead-Kendall. “Every physician has, we call, it a graveyard in our minds that we keep. Unfortunately, that space in our minds is just becoming more and more occupied.”

Dr. Darshan Mehta with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at MGH says the hospital system is working with front line health care workers to help them bear the emotional toll. He says the institute is reaching out to colleagues to promote a culture of health and well-being. The goal is to let them know they can ask for help and support is available.

The hospital offers group-based support on platforms like Zoom and individualized resources for doctors to access for help with things like exercise and meditation.

Bankhead-Kendall said the signs of support from the community help lift her up on the dark days, as does talking to those in the trenches with her.

“It’s really tough I think it’s going to stay with us for a really long time," said Bankhead-Kendall.

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