"Just making sure it is attached and then I need to hit send — and okay," says Dr. Edward Ma, MD, internal physician at Chester County Hospital, as he's sending out a video for National Nurses Week. This video, which he's been compiling while in quarantine due to COVID-19, needs the perfect song, he explains. He tracked it down from a commercial he once saw, and he's finally able to send it on its way.
After being diagnosed with COVID-19, Dr. Ma has experienced a temporary change in routine — one filled with a lot of sleeping, recovering, and, of course, making nurse appreciation videos.
Dr. Ma is a hospitalist at Chester County Hospital, which means he's a physician who dedicates his time to caring for patients in a hospital setting. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, he's been treating patients with the illness day in and day out — only to end up contracting the virus himself.
A Physician Diagnosed with COVID-19
On Sunday, May 3, Dr. Ma was working in his garden with his two children, and as he was laying down planting soil, he accidentally inhaled some of the fumes. He started to cough a little, and this cough lingered for about 48 hours — which was easy to chalk up to the gardening mishap.
On Tuesday, he felt some head pressure and significant fatigue. But, remember — he's a physician treating patients with COVID-19. Exhaustion is something many on the front lines are experiencing every day. After sleeping for 12 hours, he felt better, except for a little bit of that lingering head pressure — that is, until he came down with a fever. Dr. Ma immediately informed his supervisor and was tested for COVID-19. The test came back positive, partially to his surprise.
"Once I had the fever, I figured I must have caught it," he says. "Since I've been wearing all the appropriate gowns and PPE, and not many other colleagues around me have gotten it, it's possible I contracted the virus from grocery shopping or when I made a stop at McDonald's. But I am still surprised that I did catch it at all."
Regardless of how Dr. Ma contracted COVID-19, he knows the illness very well. His day-to-day life at CCH had been filled with it until he began quarantine — and it will continue to be once he is well enough to treat patients again.
A Day in the Life of a Physician Treating COVID-19 Patients: Hand Hygiene, Video Chats, and Plenty of Support
Remove gloves. Wash hands thoroughly. Remove gown. Wash hands thoroughly. Remove face shield or goggles. Wash hands thoroughly.
This is just a small snippet of the "doffing" process, which involves taking off personal protective equipment (PPE) — and a whole lot of hand washing.
Pre-COVID-19, physicians were accustomed to this process, as it's simply a part of the job. During a pandemic, however, this process becomes much more rigorous. Dr. Ma says that though this can be mentally taxing, it's critical to keeping both physicians and patients safe.
"By the time I got into a pattern, I figured out that I do hand hygiene 9 times during the doffing process," he says — a true testament to his technique.
However, the change in PPE protocol has impacted more than just Dr. Ma's hands. As physicians' faces are completely covered with masks and goggles or a face shield, patients aren't able to see his face. In order to put his patients at ease, he taped a picture of himself onto his gown.
Edward Ma, MD
Internal Physician at Chester County Hospital
"All they would see is a faceless person coming in," he says. "Now, patients look at a picture of me, and perhaps they find that a bit more comforting."
Dr. Ma and other CCH staff are finding other ways to comfort patients, as well, such as reading them the letters that Chester County school children have written for patients with COVID-19.
In addition, there's an entire team dedicated to connecting patients with their loved ones over video chat. All patients (including non-COVID-19 patients) have this option every day, allowing them to feel a little less isolated as they're fighting the illness.
Though families of COVID-19 patients may remain physically separated from their loved ones, they remain concerned about their well-being — a factor that Dr. Ma works to mitigate by directly communicating with multiple family members every day.
"Usually, it's just the spouse and a child, though sometimes I'll talk to multiple children. If they're all over the country, I'll just give them all a call. At most, I've talked to five family members for one patient," he says.
This takes time, but it's important to Dr. Ma to ensure one individual doesn't need to become the spokesperson for the entire family. This way, everyone's questions are answered and the whole family is kept up to speed regarding their loved one's care.
Teamwork and Community Support Makes the Hospital Go Round
Prior to COVID-19, if a patient requested some crackers or needed to use the washroom, Dr. Ma was able to call on nurses to help out. Now, because of the requirements of putting on and taking off PPE, it's quite the ordeal for a new staff member to even enter a COVID-19 patient's room.
This is why Dr. Ma has begun to do many of those tasks himself if he's already in the room — and why every other team member is stepping up to help each other out as much as they can.
"This period of practicing medicine has really shown us the importance of teamwork," he says. "We'll say, 'I'm gowned up already — let me help and take care of this or that.'" This or that includes everything from feeding a patient to turning off a beeping machine (which, according to Dr. Ma, is something the nurses make look much easier than it really is).
He also notes that support from the Chester County community has made a significant impact on hospital workers. "People come out and cheer us on as we're coming into work or getting off work. We've had restaurants and other people providing us with food or writing letters," he says.
These expressions of gratitude have been monumental to CCH workers — and it's certainly helped boost their morale as they work day in and day out to keep the community safe.
COVID-19: What a Health Professional Wants You to Know
Other than during his time in quarantine, Dr. Ma has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, he's able to offer first-hand expertise about the virus that has impacted the entire globe.
The biggest thing he wants people to know? The uncertainties. "What's scary about COVID-19 is that there are so many things that we don't know about it," he explains.
For instance, when this all began, it was believed that people who were asymptomatic (did not show symptoms) were unable to pass on the virus. Now, there is clear evidence that asymptomatic people are, in fact, capable of spreading the virus to others and putting their health at risk. One study suggests that as many as 79% of cases in China before its lockdown were a result of transmissions from undocumented cases — or when people displayed mild, limited, or no symptoms at all.
"The information keeps evolving. About a month into this, we started to realize that people are having strokes, and there's an increased risk of clotting. And in the last two weeks, we're hearing about all the pediatric inflammatory cases," Dr. Ma says
Still, there are factors that the healthcare community does know, such as the fact that seemingly healthy people can unquestionably get sick from the virus.
"Young, healthy people are much more likely to do well. They're definitely not dying in the numbers that the elderly are, but they still run that risk. And if you do get sick, you're either going to get your parents, grandparents, or infant child sick," he explains. "That would be devastating."
In the end, Dr. Ma says it's important to be vigilant — and you cannot be too cautious. "Your runny nose may not just be from allergies. Your head pressure may not just be a tension headache. Your fatigue may not just be because you put a lot of hours in at work. These might be symptoms of COVID-19," he warns.
Will the New Normal Ever Become the Old Normal Again?
So, what does the future look like according to Dr. Ma? As businesses begin to reopen, people still need to remain cautious in their daily lives.
"If it's essential, yes. Do whatever is essential — grocery shopping, doctor visits. If it's not essential, I would think twice about it," he says. "If it were my parents — my elderly parents with some medical problems — I would say don't take a chance. If you're a younger and healthier person, just be mindful that if you get sick, it might affect others around you."
Dr. Ma says that some ways of life may be forever changed, whether that includes less handshaking or improved hand hygiene. It may also highlight ways to limit the spread of the flu during its peak months, such as social distancing and masks for those that are at risk of complications.
"Maybe what we're doing for coronavirus will also help us prevent deaths from the flu," he says.
Right now, the world is certainly different than what many are used to, especially Dr. Ma. He recalls watching the news recently, during which they showed a clip of a Philadelphia Eagles game. To his surprise, he found it nauseating. "The idea that people would be standing next to each other, tens of thousands of people packed into one location, screaming, talking, hugging, cheering — it's so foreign to me right now," he says.
Further down the road, though, he hopes for a return to normal. "The way I look at it is — back with the Spanish flu in 1918, eventually things got back to normal. Eventually, everyone started gathering again in large groups and spending time together. Eventually, things normalize," he says.
Following the development of a vaccine, he looks forward to an environment that's safe for people to return to normal. "Let's all get together, watch football together, share drinks. Let's get back to that kind of life," he says.
Until then, that version of normal will remain on hold for a little while longer. As for Dr. Ma, he will continue to walk through the doors of Chester County Hospital, ready to care for his patients who need him most.
Do you have questions about COVID-19? Call 610-738-2300 to find a Chester County Hospital healthcare provider.
Looking for ways to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are some indoor workouts and how to exercise outdoors safely.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: