They've spent time away from their families, friends and favorite pastimes, combing over the latest scientific literature and burning the candle at both ends to keep their patients, colleagues and communities safe through a rapidly changing pandemic. From intense planning and adapting, to working on the front lines and providing behind-the-scenes support, these medical experts were chosen by their peers for recognition of their integral roles in the Chattanooga region's COVID-19 response.
Dr. Mark Anderson, director of infection prevention at CHI Memorial and medical director for specialty care, CHI Memorial Medical Group
As an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anderson has spent his entire career preparing for — and worrying about — the day a pandemic might strike.
"Some of the things that have happened we thought about before and had planned for within our field and the community here, but there are just so many things you can't anticipate," he says. "The economic toll on communities and people has been extremely upsetting and unsettling. I think that's a constant layer of stress on all of us no matter what we do.
"I would hope that we're going to learn from this, that we need to have a better strategy in the future for national oversight and planning for dealing with this, so that we don't have as many issues with supplies for testing, for PPE, and things like that.
"Every crisis should be used as an opportunity, so I think we need to do a lot of that and learn. Because in our interconnected world, it may not be 100 years until the next really bad, true pandemic comes along."
Dr. Bob Magill, chief of the medical staff at Parkridge Health System, Envision hospitalist and regional medical director
Dr. Magill says that when the pandemic began, the hardest elements were "the unknowns."
"Would we see large numbers of patients? Would I get sick? What if we did not have the resources to take care of a huge influx of patients?"
And then it was keeping up with the waves of new information daily, and rapidly disseminating it.
"Everyone has to be up to date and on the same page. We have had to adapt to new ways of communicating with patients and their families. Seeing patients while in masks and face shields, learning telemedicine, updating families via FaceTime or Webex are new ways we have had to learn to communicate."
As the volume of patients rises and the intensity of care increases, he says he's more appreciative of everyone working at the hospital.
"I see the nurses caring for patients as heroes. They take care of patients 12 hours at a time, always watching for any changes in their condition. The intensity of care for patients with COVID is high. The acuity in the hospital right now is high, not just for patients with COVID. The careful putting on and taking off of PPE coupled with how sick patients are is stressful.
"I think it is important to understand that health care workers are people first. We worry and care about our patients, each other, our friends and families. One never knows when their field may be called on to step up to help society. It may be the military, the police or some other line of work. Right now, it is our turn."
Chattanooga's COVID-19 response: Meet the Scenic City's go-to medical experts leading our community through the pandemic
Dr. Carlos Baleeiro, pulmonologist and medical director of critical care at CHI Memorial
Dr. Baleeiro has been caring for COVID-19 patients as a pulmonary and critical care specialist since the early days of the pandemic, working to keep his vulnerable patients with pulmonary problems out of the hospital and treating COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit. He says although COVID-19 dramatically changed the day-to-day workflow in the hospital, the support of his partners, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care professionals has also made the experience positive.
"It is a unprecedented pandemic, but the fact that everybody works so hard and works as a team is what makes it possible for us to take care of patients in this equation," he says. "Nobody has left or shied away from taking care of COVID patients, or even other ICU patients during the COVID pandemic.
"You're dealing with a brand new clinical syndrome, a brand new disease, and as you can imagine anything that's brand new, you're learning on the go while you're providing care. You're learning what works and what doesn't work."
Dr. James Sizemore, medical director of infection prevention at Erlanger Health System and chief medical officer at Cempa Community Care
For many in the community, Dr. Sizemore has been the infectious disease specialist they turn to with COVID-19 questions at all hours of the day and night. He says the biggest challenge has been, "Coordinating nimble responses between multiple interested parties in a novel, rapidly evolving, stressful situation where information, guidelines and knowledge base are changing frequently.
"America, Tennessee and Hamilton County must continue to invest in their public health infrastructure to be better prepared for similar circumstances in the future."
Dr. Sizemore says he has tried to balance work with more time outside with family and friends, socially distanced in camp chairs, going on more walks and eating new meals at home.
"In particular, I have enjoyed working closely with and learning from Erlanger's command center leadership, people I have known but not worked closely with in the past," he says. "I am proud of the combined response between our emergency preparedness/disaster management and infectious disease/employee health that we have generated."
Dr. Sanford Sharp, medical director and chief of pathology at CHI Memorial
Before COVID-19, Dr. Sharp spent much of his time looking at tissue through a microscope. Now, his job directing the laboratory requires him to navigate complex supply chains to secure needed testing supplies so front-line health care workers have timely information on who's infected.
"Early March, we were just scrambling to find a way to get testing done, and then it's been this ongoing challenge to find accurate and timely testing," Dr. Sharp says. "Now we have in-house testing capabilities, but our in-house testing is on allocation, and we can only use so many test kits. It's all trade-offs that we've been working with."
However, he says we're lucky in Chattanooga, where hospitalized patients rarely have to wait longer than 24 hours for results, as opposed to other areas of the country, where COVID-19 tests can take weeks to return.
"We've all sort of grown up in this together and learned about COVID together," he says.