Dr. Matthew Hanserd, 36, is leading his hospital’s COVID-19 response in his hometown of Athens in north Alabama. Since March, he’s treated his friends, co-workers and even his great aunt.
“The people that I’m admitting aren’t just people coming to a hospital looking for a doctor. A lot of times they’re people I know or they’re mutual friends or even family members,” he said.
That connection with his patients has heightened the intensity of leading a small hospital through a pandemic.
Hanserd’s seen a range of severity in the roughly 300 COVID-19 patients he treated so far, but for people who are struggling to breathe when they arrive at the hospital, it’s often a scary moment.
“You can see a lot of fear in the patients’ eyes before they end up on the ventilator,” he said.
After eight months of navigating the unknown, Hanserd says his biggest fears for COVID-19 lie ahead. This winter there may be months of unrelenting, growing demand on hospitals as COVID-19 cases rise exponentially. He says his biggest fear is his hospital will be overrun with COVID-19 patients and staff will be unable to meet everyone’s needs.
“I pretty much have to conceptualize that every day I come to work is probably going to be worse than the day before, and it’s going to be that way until the curve slows down,” he said.
Medical professionals like Hanserd are experiencing burnout, something that was already a problem for many healthcare workers prior to COVID-19.
“I just don’t want to be put in a position where we’re deciding who has to go on a ventilator or we’re deciding who gets a treatment and who doesn’t.”
As the director of Athens-Limestone’s hospitalist program and the vice chief of medical staff, Hanserd and his team prepared as COVID-19 spread last spring. He worked days treating the disease and nights researching new treatments to direct the hospital’s pandemic response.
His hospital wass small and lacked specialist staff. The team taught themselves to prone patients and put them on a ventilator.
“I’ve seen the people work around me who are very good at what they do, who prepared this hospital to take care of people in a global pandemic, and I’m not surprised by that.”
He says the medical professionals on his team have been scared of catching the disease or spreading it to family. One staff member was seriously ill and hospitalized with COVID-19 this year, but he is grateful none have died from the disease.
“That emotional toll of the unknown, of not knowing how sick people got with this or who was going to get or when you were going to get it, I think It really messed with a lot of people’s psyche,” he said of hospital staff.
While he still worries about his older colleagues and the exposure he might bring to his family, over time, Hansard has become familiar with the range of outcomes for COVID-19 and less personally afraid of the disease.
Hansard, who graduated from medical school at the University of South Alabama, says nothing he studied at school prepared him for a pandemic, but he had read a book called The Great Influenza about the Spanish Flu of 1918. He says understanding that history gave him great insight into navigating COVID-19.
“Physicians, in general, we sit around and talk about how bad the flu season is going to be this year, we don’t necessarily sit around and talk about what’s the next global pandemic going to be,” he said.
He says the development of new therapies to treat COVID-19 and several viable vaccines in eight months is a remarkable and promising accomplishment, he said.
“I can’t say enough for the scientists and the other physicians that have done these clinical trials that allow me to do my job.”
Hansard hasn’t spent as much time with his wife and four kids as he would like this year. When he gets home, he plays the piano to decompress, but it’s hard to ever really turn his mind away from work and the pandemic.
After 8 months of COVID-19, there’s no immediate end in sight, and the most difficult part of the pandemic for doctors in his part of the country may be yet to come.
“As healthcare professionals, a majority of us in hospitals have been working full time on this since March, and so, in a lot of ways, we’ve been running on adrenaline and a lot of people’s adrenaline is starting to drop.”