A white lab coat may not look like combat gear, but there have been times
during the coronavirus pandemic when James Hula, M.D., and Justin Whitley,
M.D., felt like they were back on active duty. Almost all of Southeast
Georgia Health System’s 18 hospitalist doctors have cared for COVID-19
patients, with Drs. Hula and Whitley leading the effort. “We are
former military service providers. Even though we are not rendering ‘care
under fire’, we bring our military experience and mindset into this
battle with the virus,” says Hula.
Courage under pressure served both physicians well as they coped with a
summertime surge of COVID-19 patients. “While all of our hospitalists
have been amazing in caring for COVID patients, a few have gone above
and beyond since the pandemic began. Dr. Hula and Dr. Whitley took the
lead in managing our COVID Medical Unit and shared information about the
virus with other doctors,” says Alan Brown, M.D., board-certified
internal medicine physician and medical director, Hospital Medicine, Southeast
Georgia Health System.
What is a Hospitalist?
Hospitalists specialize in caring for patients while they are in the hospital.
“We’re familiar with the latest research on hospitalized patients
and know how to work within the hospital system with different specialists.
We see a great variety of conditions; it’s never boring, but our
goal is to never have to see you again following your discharge, to keep
you out of the hospital,” explains Whitley.
Asked to describe the most common misunderstanding people have about hospitalists,
Brown responds, “That we exist! Inpatient expertise has become a
reality because it is impossible for your primary care doctor to be in
two places at once. The challenge for hospitalists is building trust with
someone they’re meeting for the first time who is acutely ill.”
A Viral Impact
Trust became a significant issue when the coronavirus struck. “At
one time, almost a third of the patients admitted to the hospital had
COVID-19. Multiple family members were admitted. There was so much loss.
We mourn that loss, but also celebrate those who won their battle and
were discharged home,” says Hula. Throughout the spike in coronavirus
cases, the hospitalists also continued caring for patients with other
For Whitley, the toughest part of the job is also the most important. “Trying
to explain over the phone to families that their loved one is not getting
better is the hardest thing.” The highly contagious virus forced
the hospital to suspend visitation.
The new virus affected many aspects of health care both clinical and non-clinical,
from infection control to laboratory, personal protective equipment to
elective surgeries, environmental services to human resources. Brown cites
one example. “We have had to isolate patients to a specific designated
area within the hospital based on their admitting diagnosis. This is not
something we have ever done before.”
Brothers and Sisters in Arms
In the midst of all the uncertainty, hospital staff rose to the occasion.
“I’ve never had a team like this. They take care of each other.
We’re brothers and sisters in arms,” shares Brown. Whitley
agrees. “To have 18 Type A personalities (hospitalists) who all
get along is the exception to the rule. Our nurses, CNAs, housekeeping,
facilities and others working behind the scenes also responded very well
and haven’t complained.”
Throughout the fight, the doctors were supported by the Health System.
“Our administrators were proactive and reactive as needed in adjusting
to knowns, unknowns and known unknowns,” says Whitley.
Looking back on the most intense periods of dealing with the virus, Hula
says “Even with the surge of devastating illness when little was
known other than it was highly infectious and quite deadly, and in spite
of significant strain, this organization extended assistance. The entire
Health System should be commended. All have risen to the challenges of
this pandemic. Even those not working directly with patients or on the
COVID floor were instrumental in helping us deliver high quality patient
care in which our community can trust.”
As he reflects on this global health crisis, Whitley finds cause for hope.
“I’m a better doctor because of this. It’s staggering
how rapidly our understanding of this virus has evolved. As a result,
our understanding of virology will advance more quickly and we’ll
be better prepared to handle the next virus. As you develop experience
with a disease, treatments improve. Mortality is decreasing and being
on a ventilator is no longer the death sentence it was three months ago.”
Those working in the trenches of the coronavirus fight have straightforward
advice for the public. They believe we don’t have to live in fear,
but should continue to wash our hands, wear masks and whenever possible,
social distance. Whitley urges people to rely on credible, established
sources of information instead of social media, where misinformation is
rampant. Even doctors struggle to digest all of the ever-changing data.
“New information comes into the hospital every day. Our understanding
is evolving; we are learning at the speed of light.”
Politics and differing opinions may have originally complicated efforts
to curb the virus, but the hospitalists have no time for that. They are
too busy saving lives, caring for patients and helping slow the spread
of the virus in their community. A former Sailor in the U.S. Navy, Whitley
urges us to focus less on our differences. “Remember, we are Americans
To support your local hospital during this challenging time, call Southeast
Georgia Health System Foundation at 912-466-3360.