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Faces of the front line: Local physicians talk about their experience treating COVID-19

While many Troup County residents have been practicing social distancing to help reduce spreading COVID-19, medical professionals in the community are on the front lines fighting the disease from inside hospital rooms.

Dr. Melhim Bou Alwan, medical director of WellStar Hospitalist Program, volunteered to see the first wave of COVID-19 patients at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center to prevent other doctors and nurses from being exposed. Now, WGMC said that the number of COVID-19 patients has risen to the point where other doctors are also treating those patients, but Bou Alwan led treatment on the first six or seven cases.

Bou Alwan said he jumped into the role without thinking about himself.

“I had no time to think of concerns for my own safety, and the first time this crossed my mind was seven days in when I was talking to my mom,” he said. “It was a fleeting thought, though. I have no concerns as I trust my teammates from all disciplines in healthcare, and I trust that I work with the best people out there.”

Bou Alwan said he trusts the hospital’s scientific approach and the hospital’s ability to provide him with enough protective equipment and tools to do his job.

“The only concern I have is for my patients,” he said. “This is why it is imperative to remind people to stay at home and avoid social gatherings to protect them and limit their exposure to this virus.”

Bou Alwan said he took the lead in seeing COVID-19 patients because it’s what he is called to do every day, and even though the COVID-19 healthcare crisis is unprecedented, doctors care for patients is not new.

“Medicine is not a job. Medicine is a calling where we silently put our patients and communities ahead of ourselves and our families every day,” he said. “As a physician in this community, I leapt at this opportunity to take care of these patients to lead the way for my teammates and to alleviate any anxiety that was present around caring for patients suspected of having COVID-19.”

Bou Alwan praised the work being done at the hospital by the entire staff, and there is a lot of work done behind the scenes the public doesn’t see. He said that while the hospital does have a focus on the virus, doctors and nurses are still caring for patients with other healthcare needs outside of COVID-19.

“We have been able to create various teams that professionally and compassionately take care of every patient that walks through our doors,” Bou Alwan said. “Team members from executive leadership to the front lines are giving this community everything they have to navigate us to safe waters, and we are very appreciative of the heartwarming community support.”

Dr. Salman Fidahussein, chief of medical staff at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center and pulmonologist, said his staff has provided a united and supportive presence while fighting the COVID-19 virus.

“Front-line staff has been amazing, and their strength and teamwork is outstanding,” he said. “They continue to come to work acknowledging the dangers, and in spite of the anxiety they are feeling toward the challenges ahead. Our staff is more united today than it has ever been before. It is in these moments that you see the value in relationships and how much we need each other.”

Fidahussein, affectionately known as Dr. Sal within the hospital, said the team at the hospital, as well as the emergency and critical care/pulmonary medicine physicians, are answering the call every time a patient is in need.

“They are the heroes walking into rooms every day to care for the ones in need,” he said. “They continue to move toward the ‘fire,’ and they do so with courage, love and determination. I am very proud of them and their hearts.”

Fidahussein said the staff at the hospital is learning, evolving and improving quickly every day when it comes to treating and fighting COVID-19. He said the team has been working long hours from nurses, therapists, administration, ancillary staff, nutrition services, cleaning services, IT, engineering and security to ensure the hospital is prepared and ready to respond.

“It truly takes a very organized and orchestrated village to take care of each patient, but we have the hearts and support that we need to be able to respond effectively and to the best of our ability,” he said.

Fidahussein said the responsibility of the health and wellness of the patients and the community depends on the residents.

“We, the physicians, and healthcare providers will continue to fight for you, and we ask you to pray and support us,” he said. “Continue to hold each other accountable to practice social distancing, hold off traveling and practice hand hygiene. As the saying goes, if not us, then who and if not now, then when? We also want to thank the community for the incredible support we have received in so many amazing ways.”

Emory Clark-Holder Clinic Physician Dr. Kenneth Horlander said he’s also incredibly proud of the work WGMC and Emory have done during this time.

“From the very second that these people hit the door, they’re asked the right questions,” he said.

Horlander said he is careful when examining patients, but he’s able to put those thoughts out of his mind while working.

“Otherwise, you couldn’t do the job,” he said. “In my mind, the first thing is we’ve got to take care of this patient. We have to give them all they need to give them the best chance of doing well. That’s what we do.”

Horlander said the staff is also doing what it can to take care of themselves, but they are also making the right decision to conserve its protective gear.

“Basically, you’ve got to throw it all away when you’re coming out of a patient’s room,” he said. “Because you don’t want to bring it out into the hallway or into other patient’s rooms.”

Horlander said that healthcare workers are much more likely to catch COVID-19 outside of the hospital than inside of it.

“When we’re in the hospital, we scared about it, and we are washing our hands frequently. We’re alcoholing our hands frequently and we’re wearing all the get up every time,” he said. “But then what happens when you go to the grocery store, and you’re around people in the grocery line and you’re touching things other people touched? You are not alcoholing after each one of those.”