Cleveland Clinic doctor returns from front lines in NY: ‘Incredible’ how COVID-19 patients present in ‘all kinds of ways’

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) — Cleveland Clinic Dr. Judy Welsh has spent a lot of time in New York, living, training, visiting friends and working in the medical field.

Last week, she made a trip there that she’ll never forget: she volunteered her time to work with patients affected by the coronavirus epidemic in one of the biggest hotspots in the country.

“The whole week was a little sad, and a little inspiring,” said Welsh.

Volunteering experience to combat COVID-19

Welsh was one of 25 Cleveland Clinic caregivers who left for New York on April 17 to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. She was assigned to Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, which is part of New York-Presbyterian. She returned Thursday night.

Welsh is an emergency physician who works in the emergency department of the Cleveland Clinic’s Avon Hospital. She’s also associate chief experience officer in the office of patient experience and is a medical director for community paramedicine.

Welsh was actually living in New York during working in an EMS rotation during 9/11, but she didn’t have the opportunity to help out with recovery efforts at that time.

“So this was kind of a second chance for me to help out in New York City,” she said. “When the call went out from the Cleveland Clinic, I offered my time and talents.”

COVID-19 patients presenting “in all kinds of ways”

When she and the other Cleveland Clinic caregivers arrived in New York, they got off the plane, got settled in their hotels, and went straight to the hospital to start orientation and take a tour.

“The next morning, we hit the ground running and started seeing patients,” she said.

She said she couldn’t even begin to count the number of patients she saw there, and the majority had coronavirus infections.

She said one thing that struck her was that the COVID-19 patients presented symptoms in “all kinds of ways.”

“Some had new-onset heart arrhythmia, new-onset diabetes, severely low blood sugar, kidney failure of all kinds, dehydration, mental status changes,” she said. “All of it was coronavirus, It was incredible how different each of these patients presented. There was no one standard way these folks showed up in the emergency department.”

Another large group of patients were those who had put off their emergencies since the outbreak started. They were “different types of victims of coronavirus,” she said.

“Every single patient I saw seemed to be critically ill in their own way,” she said. “Many required oxygen and multiple drips.”

One woman who stood out to her was a cancer survivor. The woman began to have weakness in her right side and eventually couldn’t walk anymore. That was the trigger for her to seek treatment.

“She had the diagnosis of a brain tumor that I had to give her wearing a mask,” said Welsh, with tears in her eyes. “And it was hard. It was hard for me. It had to be hard for her.”

She said one of the worst parts for the patients is that they couldn’t have visitors, so it was very hard to advocate for themselves. Welsh spent a lot of time talking with family members and learning medical histories to get patients the care they needed.

A lot of her time was also spent comforting patients. She credits the Cleveland Clinic for providing the training and education she needed to do that.

Team, conditions at NY hospital

She said the hospital staff was very grateful for their help. Four of their physicians were out with their own infections, and the team was very tired from working overtime.

She said she felt very comfortable at the hospital.

“We had ample protective equipment, every resource imaginable,” she said. “I was very comfortable and felt very safe while I was there.”

The city was also very supportive of its medical teams. Every night at 7 p.m., fire trucks would line the streets around the hospital and applaud for all the caregivers at shift change.

“It was absolutely magical and incredible,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. People were hanging out their windows, banging drums. People were on the streets applauding.”

Bringing back experience to fight the crisis in Cleveland

She said the week in New York was like a “whole new residency” and she’s brought back a wealth of experience and knowledge to help deal with the crisis in Cleveland.

“I think number one, just understanding coronavirus and the multiple presentations, the different ways it shows up in people and the best ways to treat them,” she said.

She was also impressed with the hospital’s telemedicine program and the ability to manage patients with infections from their homes.

Moving forward, Welsh said she is trying to get cleared to return to work as soon as she can.

“This morning I went for a run with my dog, took a look outside, breathed in the fresh air,” she said. “It’s nice to be in a quiet place where there’s not a lot of noise. Spend some time with my husband. I came home and had a cocktail hour last night to catch up.”

More importantly, she’s excited to share the knowledge she learned in New York with those here in Cleveland.

“I really took a lot away and hopefully will be able to come and share some of that information with my colleagues,” she said.

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