Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
Bookmark and Share

Emory DPT Alumni Shine on the Front Lines of COVID-19

In national health crisis, four Emory DPT alumnae heroically rise to the challenge.
Story Photo

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic in America, one could argue that it’s that hospital caregivers have been elevated to the heroic public status they deserve. While the majority of Americans sheltered safely in place for nearly the entire spring season, hospital-based doctors and nurses risked their own safety to provide care at the bedside to hundreds of thousands of patients stricken by a previously unknown virus that proved to be highly contagious and deadly.

But what about hospital-based physical therapists? What role, if any, did they play in treating COVID-19 patients? Early this summer, after the first deadly wave of COVID cases hit America, Emory Physical Therapy contacted four Emory DPT alumni, all who work in urban hospitals hit hard by the virus, to hear their own experiences. We learned that, despite early questions about their value in being at the patient bedside, each of these physical therapists donned their personal protective equipment (PPE) and valiantly fought for their patients in restoring mobility. If there was ever a question of the significant role that a physical therapist plays in the healing process, the COVID-19 crisis has answered it. Today, thanks in part to these heroic Emory DPT alumni, the role of the hospital-based PT is more valued than ever.

image of wollman in PPE

Meghan Wollman: The Emotional Toll in America’s COVID-19 Epicenter

When the COVID-19 outbreak first hit in March, Meghan Wollman (formerly Stanley), 17DPT, worked in the cardiothoracic ICU in a large hospital in Brooklyn. At first, her department was not treating COVID patients. A week later, as COVID patients flooded the hospital’s ICU, Wollman was wearing PPE and serving on the front lines of patient care in the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter.

“We had so many patients on ventilators,” says Wollman. “We didn’t have the infrastructure to support all of the patients who required an ICU setting.”

Wollman will never forget the emotional toll that the spread of the deadly virus took on her and her colleagues.

“One of the things that was very difficult was just the amount of codes we heard,” she says. “It was nonstop. It affected your general mental health just hearing that over and over and over again. I was at home and the microwave was beeping at the same time something else was beeping. The beeping resembled the sounds we hear when a code is called over the hospital loud speaker and it freaked me out. We just heard it all of the time.”

Wollman credits her husband, family, friends and coworkers for helping her get through one of the most emotionally draining times of her life.

“The only people who truly understood what I felt at the time were my coworkers because they were also going through it. We would talk a lot about it,” says Wollman. “At work, they brought in pastoral care and had a few sessions with us just to let it out . . .We were all wondering, ‘Am I bringing this home to my family? Am I doing the right thing? Am I making the right decisions for my patients?’ We were dealing with guilt and burdens. Just getting that out with everyone was very helpful and knowing that everyone is going through the same thing. It was one of those times when you realize that you have to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of others.”

Wollman’s supervisor joked that their entire staff would emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as cardio/pulmonary physical therapists. Wollman’s quick decision-making with one patient lent credibility to that thought.

“There was an older patient who I was co-treating with occupational therapy and when we sat her up, her oxygen dropped to 78 percent,” says Wollman. “She was already on six liters of oxygen through her nasal cannula and you can’t really increase it more than that. I called out to the hallway and said, ‘This isn’t a code, but somebody get me a non-rebreather mask now.’ You just have to think on your feet more and do it without asking permission. You do it first and ask for forgiveness later. We put the non-rebreather mask on and thank goodness, her saturation increased and she didn’t have to be intubated.”

Whatever role she plays in the post-COVID-19 future, Wollman feels like the crisis has made her a better physical therapist.

“The positive thing that has come out of it for me is that it has made me more confident in my skills and my quick clinical decision making,” she says. “The things that I do now, if you would have asked me in January if I would be doing them, there’s no way that I would have felt comfortable with it. Now, I don’t even think twice about it.”

image of Rift smiling for the camera

Emily Rift: Becoming a ‘Hero’

It’s hard to blame any hospital caregivers who felt uncomfortable about exposure to this unknown and sometimes deadly virus. But Ochsner Medical Center ICU Physical Therapist Emily Rift, 18DPT, not only wanted to be on front lines in the battle against COVID-19, she lobbied hard for it.

“It may seem strange to convince somebody to let you go see a COVID patient,” says Rift, “but we really felt that if we waited until either the threat was gone or the person was more stable, that it would be far too late in the process. The hospital would either be holding up beds awaiting our intervention, or the patient could lose so much mobility when that could be prevented.”

Rift and her colleagues successfully made the case to their supervisors and ICU physicians that while doctors and nurses were responsible for the next five minutes of a patient’s care, PTs were responsible for the next five days and five months and therefore, needed to intervene as early as possible.

“We approached the doctors who we were familiar with and trust us to work with their patients and we said, ‘You can’t keep us out of the rooms. You need to let us go in there,’” Rift recalls. “They were like, ‘Ok, we’ll listen. What do you think you can do with them?’”

During the first wave of the virus, Ochsner, a 767-bed academic medical center just outside of New Orleans, set up six ICUs on five hospital floors and was treating up to 500 COVID-19 patents at a time. According to Rift, nearly 200 of those patients required PT as she and her colleagues put in long hours for several weeks.

“It has definitely been an experience that has taken an emotional toll with a high level of physical exhaustion and very little social interaction,” says Rift. “On top of that was the emotional strain of seeing these patients – the level of fragility that they were experiencing, the level of delirium and the fact that their loved ones couldn’t be there with them. It was definitely an overwhelming time. It required a lot of really intentional self care and relaxation.”

In April, Ochsner recognized Rift as an “Ochsner Hero” for her “passion and drive to keep patients first” and the fact that she has “emerged as a leader on the rehab team.” Rift, who would come home from her shift each night and spend hours researching COVID-19, feels like the experience has made her a much better PT.

“Obviously, COVID threw everybody a curveball, but I will say it’s been an incredible learning experience and it was a really good experience in pulmonology,” she says. “After this, I feel super prepared for anything.”

Collier taking a selfie with a mask on

Alyssa Collier: ‘Thankful’ for the Emory DPT ICU Class

When Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University Hospital started seeing a rush of COVID-19 cases in March, Alyssa Collier, 18DPT, remembers standing outside of an ICU room window with a PT colleague using a white board to communicate with a nurse in the room about mobilizing a patient. She recalls that the nurse had a “deer-in-the-headlights” look and was unsure of how to safely move the patient out of the bed while managing vent and IV lines. That’s when Collier realized that she and her PT colleagues would be needed on the front lines of COVID-19 care.

“We donned our PPE and were able to get in there and get to the chair and safely mobilize him,” Collier recalls. “It was huge. It was an eye-opening event that showed we needed to be involved with some of these patients.”

After that, Collier and her colleagues convinced their supervisors to create rehabilitation teams for the hospital’s ICU and step-down units. Throughout the ordeal, the hospital peaked at about 100 COVID-19 cases and Collier says she learned more in two months about ICU care than she had in her previous two years.

While she fondly recalls the police officer who walked out of the hospital with his son after weeks of intense rehab and was the subject of a local television news story, she also saw the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 that resulted in death.

“I had a patient who, one day, we walked with her across the entire room and she did great. She was a nonstop talker and she very much stood out,” Collier remembers. “The next day, she was intubated and then the next day, she passed. My coworker showed me her obituary in the newspaper, and it was kind of like, ‘This is so real.’ It was so up and down.”

Collier, who managed to stay healthy while in isolation with her fiancé, credits the Emory DPT ICU elective she took with Drs. Kathy Lee Bishop and Jenny Sharp for adequately preparing her for the crisis.

“I was so much more prepared for this situation because of their course, thus allowing me to learn more and gain incredible experience in the process,” says Collier. “I have a lot more confidence because of the training, studying and everything that we went through in that course. I’m very thankful for that.”

image of corridor taking a portrait in from of a brick wall.

Katelyn Corridon: ‘If Not Me, Then Who?’

After finishing the Emory University Doctor of Physical Therapy Acute Care Residency in which she split time in the ICUs of two Emory Healthcare hospitals, Katelyn Corridon, 18DPT, was hired by Emory University Hospital and admits to being concerned about her continued educational growth.

“I was a little worried that when I finished my residency, I wasn’t going to be forced into learning like I was in residency by reading articles and staying current and pushing myself. I think that’s really important early on and all through your career,” Corridon says. “And then six months into working full time, COVID-19 happens.”

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Corridon was one of two PTs assigned to the hospital’s COVID ICU where for a six- to eight-week period, the hospital’s daily COVID census hovered between 30 and 40 patients. Despite the many unknowns associated with the virus, Corridon knew that she had to rise above any fear she initially felt.

“I had the ‘If not me, then who?’ perspective,” she admits. “We had six pregnant therapists in our department and quite a few therapists who have kids at home and elderly parents. I don’t fall into any of those categories and I’m very comfortable in the ICU. I thought to myself, ‘If anyone is going to get this, it might as well be me and my very healthy fiancé. It’s just us at home and we’re not seeing anybody anyway, so we’ll just deal with it.’”

During a two-month period in which her entire caseload was COVID-19, Corridon says that the entire staff went through “growing pains” trying to understand how the virus affects the body. A patient would be moving and doing fine one day and be intubated the next.

“There were patients who had to be intubated multiple times,” says Corridon “and we were just trying to find how to best prevent all of the horrible complications of immobility and critical illness.”

Despite the relentless pressure of weeks and weeks of caring for COVID patients, one of the big takeaways for Corridon was how Emory caregivers came together as her rehab team gained the respect of ICU physicians and nurses. She recalled a recent conversation with a nurse who was helping an ICU patient stand up.

“I had a patient in the COVID ICU, and a nurse who was caring for him was telling me all of the things that she was doing for him,” Corridon recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘This never would have happened before all of this. No nurse is standing a patient up in intensive care on high levels of oxygen.’ But I think we’ve made really great progress toward a really team-based approach with mobility.”

Email the editor