From the frontlines: Dr. Sean McVeigh

A conversation with the head of Wayne Memorial Hospital’s COVID-19 unit


HONSEDALE, PA — Working “round the clock” at the forefront of Wayne County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pulmonologist Dr. Sean McVeigh finds himself falling back on his medical training in the military.

“Military trains us for disaster medicine and gets us prepared for working in austere environments with limited resources,” McVeigh said. “We’re made for this… I only wish I was 30 years younger.”

As the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Wayne County has risen from one to more than 80 over several weeks, Wayne Memorial Hospital has transformed its third floor into a COVID-19 isolation unit. Specializing in respiratory medicine, McVeigh was chosen to head up the unit. “I’m the only one who does what I do here,” he said.

In addition to McVeigh, the new containment unit has been staffed with nurses that have backgrounds in critical or emergency care. As a result, nurses from other departments have had to step up and fill the void this left in the regular intensive care unit. 

“Everyone is sort of taking the call to move up to the next level and take on that role and responsibility,” McVeigh said.

There’s always a healthy amount of stress built into the job of providing critical care to patients, McVeigh said that this stress is a positive because it keeps him and his staff focused. What differentiates working through this pandemic, however, is the uncertainty that it brings. The cause for some anxiety, McVeigh said, is the prospect of seeing a large influx all at once, getting overwhelmed with patients and not having enough staff, beds or time to treat them.

“Have people been following the guidelines, have they been social distancing, have they been staying home? Those are variables we can’t control as healthcare providers,” McVeigh said. “We can control medicines, we can control the treatments, but we can’t control how people are acting outside of the hospital.”

The overall goal in addressing this crisis, he explained, is not containment—which can’t be done anyway—but deceleration.

“All we can do is slow the spread of it, so that the 10 percent [of cases requiring hospitalization] and one percent [of cases requiring intensive care] don’t come in all over the course of two weeks,” he said. “If we could just spread this over the course of several weeks, I think we’ll be able to handle this very well.”

Through interfacing with the broader medical community, McVeigh is consistently told that WMH is “well ahead” of other medical centers and “much better prepared to handle the crisis.” Lisa Champeau, the hospital’s public relations manager, said that, so far, the hospital has not been overwhelmed by the virus, having an average of six to 10 patients in the COVID-19 unit at a given time. She said that personal protective equipment is in short supply, however.

Tools like the internet and social media have been very helpful in keeping people informed throughout this crisis, McVeigh said, both for the medical community and the general public.

“The nice thing about the medical community at large is we love to share information,” he said. From the beginning, McVeigh has been consuming podcasts and blogs done by doctors on the frontlines about how to best treat patients with COVID-19. The virus is similar to the common cold, he said, in that there isn’t a medicine out there that can be used to “cure” it. The treatments they have been using “generically” interrupt the virus’s ability to hijack cells, however, it’s not specific to COVID-19. He said that more research is needed to determine how much to give patients and to make sure the medicine isn’t more toxic to them than the infection itself.

Gov. Tom Wolf has recently begun issuing positive news about stabilizing the number of new cases the state counts each day. McVeigh said it’s harder to get a sense of whether or not the curve is flattening at a local level. He expects that there will be some lag for rural areas behind the statewide trends.

When thinking about the future of this pandemic, McVeigh tends to look to the past. Specifically, he finds encouragement in the world’s recovery from the 1918 Spanish Flu.

“Everything we’re doing today was implemented back then; we’re all here today,” he said. “Our relatives… got through social distancing without smartphones, TVs and computers... What worked 100 years ago—[social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands]—is still proven to be as effective today.”

For the local community, McVeigh stressed the importance of following proper social distancing guidelines and to not become “obsessed” with the numbers of positive cases and deaths. He also reminded the public to use their healthcare providers as a resource to get through the pandemic safely.

“We’re here to heal, but we’re also here to educate and promote community well-being,” he said. “If you have a question… ask your provider. They know your history the best, they know what risk factors you have and what would be safe for you to do and what would be something you should avoid.”

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from the frontlines, wayne memorial hospital, sean mcveigh, covid19, isloation unit, honesdale, pa, pulmonology


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