A meme of Grover, the Muppet, in a lab coat and the words, “Stay home, unless you want to be intubated by a gynecologist,” came through as a text. I laughed out loud and forwarded it to my gynecology peers.
When I was summoned two days later to be an ICU attending in New York City during our COVID-19 surge, I thought, this is not a joke anymore. I have people's lives in my hands.
I spent an entire week reading ICU medicine textbooks and cramming ventilator settings into my brain. I had my bags packed to stay at an apartment away from my family, and the night I was supposed to move into my sublet, I received a call. The hospital no longer needed me to be an ICU doctor. They had gotten enough volunteers from all over the world.
But I couldn't just go home. I could not simply cheer, cancel my sublet, and wait until I could perform hysterectomies again; I had to help.
Shortly thereafter over a hospital broadcast, I heard a doctor speak about the challenges of connecting families to their sick loved ones at the hospital. It required staff donning PPE and prolonged exposures to COVID-19 to a schedule time for a family and patient to speak. These challenges made coordinating virtual visits next to impossible.
That was it—that would be my role! I would create a doctor-liaison program where I would round with ICU attendings, and then call patients' families with pertinent medical information.
I gathered a team of trusted colleagues, including my friend, an interventional radiologist, Marc Schiffman, MD. The very next day we started rounding in the ICU. I took feverish notes detailing every pertinent fact to accurately relay to my assigned families. During my first call, I could barely finish introducing myself before the family on the other end asked, “Can we speak to him? When can he hear us?”
As my calls with families progressed throughout the day, the same question kept arising. “Can she hear our voice?” I knew there were efforts to coordinate video chats, but family and staff had occasionally complained about the distressing visual element.
We needed a hands-free, zero maintenance, two-way method of communication—walkie talkies! We found a children's walkie talkie device that connected to a cell phone app. To convert the toy into a medical device appropriate for the ICU, we designed a novel hospital case for the device. Within the case, the toy transformed seamlessly into an ICU setting. The case ensured hospital and patient privacy, infection control, and connection to hospital beds. Immediately, families began praying, singing, and speaking to loved ones through the device. Finally, the ICU's glass windows isolating patients from socialization figuratively shattered.
Requests for the device multiplied and soon we had deployed more than 160 devices throughout our New York City hospital. The program became known as VoiceLove Project and is now spreading throughout the country.
As a gynecologic surgeon and an interventional radiologist, intubation may not have been part of our training, but involving family in patient care and incorporating a patient's entire ecosystems into the healing process is one of our specialties.
Dr. Tamatha Fenster is gynecologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, NY, specializing in minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic gynecologic surgery.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions in the Frontline Voices initiative reflect experiences of individual ACOG members and do not represent official organizational opinions of ACOG.