Local doctor returns from New York City after helping COVID-19 patients, staff

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– A local doctor has returned from the front lines of the pandemic. Dr. Jeff Jensen, who works at both Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, returned to work Friday after helping COVID-19 patients in New York City.

It started as an email toward the beginning of the crisis. It was a call for help from the Society of Critical Care Medicine, which Jensen is a member of. He said it asked for volunteers to head to the epicenter– New York City.

“But much like the rest of us in the country, we thought the same wave was coming toward us. So we were in the midst of planning and preparing for that same wave,” said Jensen, a ICU physician.

When a spike in cases didn’t happen, he knew it was time to go. Staff members were able to fill in for him during his time out of the area.

It was April 28th when Jensen started the volunteer work in New York.

“Daily number of people in ICU across our public hospitals for suspected COVID-19… that went down,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, (D) New York, during a press conference on that day.

When Jensen arrived at the end of April, the city was starting to see progress. The situation was as he expected.

“I found a health care organization that was overwhelmed, but they were slowly catching up,” Jensen said.

He oversaw a make-shift intensive care area at one of NYC’s 11 public hospitals. He declined to say which hospital citing privacy issues.

Staff members had turned an area, typically used for surgery patients to recover, into another ICU. Sheets were set up to separate beds and equipment was brought in.

“All of those patients were on ventilators and sick,” Jensen said.

There were 24 chronically critically ill patients– meaning they were stabilized but debilitated and required a lot of heavy care.

“Many patients had kidney failure, many patients had strokes, many patients had clots in their veins and their arteries,” Jensen said.

Not all survived.

“Unfortunately through this process, even in the two weeks, I saw a number of patients die,” Jensen said.

Only the staff that cared for them were there to comfort them, because of limits on visitors.

“A lot of these patients died with no family at the bedside,” Jensen said.

But he wasn’t just there to care for patients, but the staff.

“Early on, everybody was working hard, working extra hours, doing what they can to meet the extra needs,” Jensen said.

But bringing in extra hands helped those staff members take time to recover.

“Clearly everybody locally was exhausted physically and emotionally. So I was able to fill in as an intensive care doctor for the two weeks I was there,” Jensen said.

But because of an influx of visiting medical professionals, he says sometimes there were disjointed patient plans. That may have caused patients to not improve as quickly.

“A couple days the visiting doctor would come in, do what he or she thought was the right thing to do. Another doctor would come by and maybe make that plan change,” Jensen said.

So he worked to get clarified, consistent plans.

It’s one of the many lessons he brought back from his time in New York to use if we get a sudden surge of cases.

“If this happens to us, how are we going to avoid burn out,” Jensen said.

He says while a lot has changed from the beginning- one thing remains.

“The risk is still there. It hasn’t gone away,” Jensen said.

He understands that businesses need to reopen, but says people should be vigilant. After what he saw in New York, he’s urging people to keep wearing masks, washing their hands and avoiding large gatherings. That way we can keep flattening the curve so other hospitals don’t get overwhelmed.