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Published On November 20, 2020

What a Hospital is Built For

As COVID-19 first swept through Boston, the people of Massachusetts General Hospital responded. Their efforts offer a portrait of medicine in motion.

As cases of COVID continue to tick up at an alarming rate across the nation and around the world, the pandemic that has been omnipresent for nearly a year continues to shape the way we live and work and socialize and celebrate. The numbers alone, while sobering, provide some context and scope of the disease’s reach, but to grasp the true magnitude of its human impact, we must turn to stories—stories of people, hope, grief, progress, frustration and joy. Inside hospitals, embracing each COVID patient has been an orbit of providers—physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers, chaplains and countless others—who have faced an unfamiliar and unpredictable viral foe, and with it, so much change. 

There was the social worker, used to being at the bedside of cancer patients, who made telephone calls to learn something special about the COVID patients ventilated in the ICU, sedated and unable to communicate. There was the nurse who arrived for work one morning to learn that she would be taking care of a coworker who had been admitted to her own unit. There were the nonclinical employees whose regular jobs had been put on hold and who were redeployed to sit at patients’ bedsides and listen for any signs of trouble with their ventilators. There were the clinicians, collaborating with researchers, who worked around the clock to figure out what drug, what strategy, what to try next time to give patients the best chance of recovery.

Spring was grueling; the grief, staggering. When, in July, the hospital hosted a day to thank staff, the mood throughout the hospital was relatively subdued without the usual flow of visitors, but there was a sense of relief that the surge was behind us and the hospital was returning to a new type of normal. COVID inpatient cases were way down, and staff could take a collective breath. And there was, finally, time to celebrate the triumphs: the more than 2,000 patients who were discharged back to home, the 75 healthy babies who were born to COVID-positive mothers. 

Now, as we head into the winter—still masked and physically distanced—we do so with the benefit of experience, more data and a growing body of science that will inform our decisions and actions. The progress we have made—progress in therapies, prevention and our own workflows—has made us stronger as a community. Lauren DeMarco, the social worker who looked into the lives of ventilated patients, noted this spring that “joy runs faster than grief can walk.” As we monitor the steadily rising number of COVID patients coming into our hospital, these hopeful words serve to remind us that this pandemic is truly a marathon, not a sprint. And we are distance runners.