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HomeLatest newsPersonal stories4 things COVID-19 taught an ER doctor about the power of resilience and hope
Dr. Ed Kuffner wearing PPE

4 things COVID-19 taught an ER doctor about the power of resilience and hope

At the height of the outbreak in New York City, Dr. Ed Kuffner took a leave of absence from his job to volunteer at a Brooklyn hospital hard hit by the pandemic. He shares what the experience taught him about his own strengths—and ideas for coping during this unprecedented time.

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The physical effects of COVID-19 are undeniable. But there’s another facet of the pandemic that’s just as undeniable: the significant impact it’s having on mental health around the world.

Ed Kuffner, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health

Ed Kuffner, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health

According to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, more than one-third of Americans say that the pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health, and almost 60% feel that the virus is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.

In response, Janssen Research & Development, a Janssen Pharmaceutical Company of Johnson & Johnson, helped launch the Mental Health & Suicide Prevention National Response to COVID-19 to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and well-being of people in the United States.

This impact is something that healthcare professionals on the front lines of the pandemic are witnessing firsthand every day. Just ask Ed Kuffner, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, and a board-certified emergency medicine physician who volunteered to help treat patients for four weeks at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn at the peak of the outbreak in New York City in April.

“It was immediately clear to me that I was about to see things I had hoped I would never have to experience,” he says. “The moment I stepped into that emergency department, I knew it wasn’t going to be business as usual. There were people on stretchers in every hallway. There was no doubt that something unprecedented was going on.”

For Mental Health Month, we asked Dr. Kuffner—who used Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Medical Personnel Leave Policy, which enables medically trained employees to take a paid leave of up to 14 weeks to help with COVID-19 relief efforts—to share what he learned about himself and also from many others about coping and finding hope during these challenging times.

Ed Kuffner, M.D.: I’m back home in Pennsylvania now after about a month of working in Brooklyn, and what I experienced still weighs on me. All of the healthcare workers—including those who may not get the recognition they deserve, like housekeeping, lab staff, transporters, people stocking supplies, refilling oxygen canisters, delivering meals and registering patients—saw these things, which is a part of medicine.

But as we did our best to deliver the highest quality care, we learned a few things about how to look for glimmers of hope when times are tough. My hope is that these lessons can help others, too.

Your resilience just might surprise you.

We put up a tent in the hospital’s parking lot as an extension of the emergency room because the hospital was completely full. There, I led a team of nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and doctors from all over the country who volunteered to live many miles away from their families and loved ones to help New Yorkers in need. They are some of the most caring and finest clinicians I have ever worked with, and we learned on the job together.

The emergency room tent outside of Coney Island Hospital

The emergency room tent outside of Coney Island Hospital

There was no such thing as a “typical” patient. Under normal circumstances, you have a good understanding of what course a patient is going to take, and that gives you a lot of confidence as a healthcare practitioner. But here we didn’t have that understanding or confidence, due to the newness of the disease and the unpredictable nature of COVID-19. Yet every day I saw these practitioners and hospital workers demonstrate extraordinary resilience in the face of extreme challenges. We rallied together with a shared passion for making a difference and caring for our patients—and I think those patients could feel it.

I’ll never forget one man who’d been with us in the emergency tent for a few days. When a bed opened up in the hospital and we told him we were able to transfer him, he said, “No, I want to stay here in the tent.” I thought to myself: Wait a minute, this is a tent in the middle of a parking lot that’s filled with cots, and this man wants to stay?

One day, I saw a top cardiologist sweeping the floors because the housekeeping staff just didn’t have the bandwidth. I’d regularly take out the trash. I believe doing this kind of work—and asking each other for help when needed—was our way of defying the virus.

It filled me with pride. It showed that we had adapted to the point of caring for patients at a really high level in a tent, in the middle of a parking lot, which was pretty amazing.

The difference we could make, despite our circumstances, was a powerful motivator—and proved to me the value of sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other, working together and always doing the best you can.

Asking for help—and helping others—can help keep you going.

I’m grateful to Johnson & Johnson for saying yes when I asked to go on Medical Personnel Leave to volunteer in New York. I’m also so thankful for my wife, Heather, who was understandably nervous when I told her I wanted to work in the pandemic’s epicenter.

But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t go to New York and use the emergency medicine skills that I have. Being clear about that commitment helped Heather see how important it was to me, and she climbed up into the attic to help me find my old scrubs, and FaceTimed with me every night after my shifts so we could connect as I ate dinner.

I also saw the staff leaning on each other and pitching in wherever they were needed. All of us working in the tent referred to it as “our home,” and we all did our part to run a tight ship.

One day, I saw a top cardiologist sweeping the floors because the housekeeping staff just didn’t have the bandwidth. I’d regularly take out the trash. These are tasks physicians, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants don’t normally do. But I believe doing this kind of work—and asking each other for help when needed—was our way of supporting each other and defying the virus.

Despite all of the sadness and tragedy, we were there for each other and for the people we were caring for. It made us feel good that we could do that.

COVID-19 is very isolating—for the patients inside the hospital, but also for everyone who is practicing social distancing. So finding ways to still feel part of a community by helping others can really help improve your outlook during these trying times.

Words of encouragement really do matter.

I am humbled by the many encouraging and motivating messages I received from family, friends and colleagues. While I was working in Coney Island, I’d start and end my days reading these messages. They really gave me strength.

Thank you notes that Dr. Kuffner received

Thank you notes that Dr. Kuffner received

I learned so much about how to encourage my patients, too—to keep their spirits high when they were scared and alone. One morning, as I was walking from the tent to the hospital, I saw a woman standing outside holding a bag. I don’t speak Spanish, but I was able to understand that she wanted me to give the bag to her husband—I’ll call him Mr. F—which held some homemade soup.

Later that evening, Mr. F somehow communicated to me that his wife was outside again. This time, she had a big comforter. As I took it from her, I said, “He says he loves you.” She smiled. When I gave him the blanket, I told Mr. F, “She says she loves you.” Although neither actually said those specific words, it was clear to me what they were feeling—and as the conduit, I felt compelled to verbalize it in my own way.

All of us are going to face adversity at some point. I think it’s how we deal with that adversity that matters most.

What we know for sure about this disease is that it is very isolating. Patients’ family and loved ones aren’t allowed to be with them in the hospital or emergency department. That was one of the most difficult things to witness. And that’s why all of us went out of our way to become surrogate loved ones of sorts. We wanted to make sure that, although these patients were on their own, they weren’t going to feel alone.

So make it a point to reach out to others and share some words of encouragement. The act of doing so can help lift their—and your—spirits and give them strength, which might feel hard to come by right now.

You can find glimmers of hope, even in your darkest hours.

Families all over the world are dealing with heartache right now. Most of the local healthcare workers I met in New York have stories about someone they know who died or was severely affected by COVID-19. A few of Coney Island Hospital’s ER doctors, nurses and other staff are still recovering themselves and unable to work.

But there were also happier moments in the hospital, like when someone would come off a ventilator and they would play “Don’t Stop Believin” on the loudspeakers. There was also the man who parked outside the hospital and played “You Raise Me Up.” Each time I’d hear him blast that song from his truck it brought tears to my eyes—which is not good when you’re wearing a mask and both eye protection and a face shield that would fog up!

My daughter, Margaret, is a Rotary exchange student in Denmark and she put together a video of other exchange students from all over the world saying “thank you” in their native languages to express their gratitude to the world’s healthcare providers. Seeing this younger generation’s outpouring of gratitude and love gives me hope for the future, and reminded me to find joy everywhere I can.

Images from Margaret Kuffner's "Thank You" video

Images from Margaret Kuffner’s “Thank You” video

But that’s not to say we don’t get scared. I remember calling to check in on one patient who’d been recently discharged—he was a young, fit and healthy police officer, but he had really struggled. My palms were sweating as I picked up the phone. I heard a few rings on the other end and thought: Please, please answer the phone. I was never so happy when I heard his voice and he told me he was getting better. It was a glimmer of hope in what, at times, felt like complete chaos.

All of us are going to face adversity at some point. I think it’s how we deal with that adversity that matters most.

When I look back at my experience working in Coney Island, I know it has made me stronger and more appreciative. It has also inspired me to look at my priorities and remember what’s most important.

My hope is that this global pandemic brings people together, because that is how we’ll get through this. That will be the tribute to all the people we’ve lost, and to all of the healthcare providers doing what they can to help all of us through some of our darkest hours.

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