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Physical therapy alumna shares home health and hospital based COVID insights

Many UK College of Health Sciences alums are among the countless health care heroes working tirelessly to deliver quality care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Lauren Haegele, a 2014 physical therapy graduate, has been diligently serving in New York City since the outbreak’s beginnings.

New York experienced an onslaught of exponential cases in early April. During the span of only two months from April to May, Haegele treated more than 130 patients infected with COVID-19 in both the home health and acute hospital setting. 

Haegele recently stepped away from home health and now works at the Columbia University branch of New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is ranked as the No. 1 hospital in New York and No. 4 in the nation.

Haegele said the transition from home health to a full-time hospital environment has been a positive change amidst the pandemic. “Home health provides medical care in the most intimate and meaningful environment to the patient — their home,” she said.

But, for the health care provider during a viral pandemic, home health presents with serious safety risks. Manhattan apartments are notorious for being exceptionally small, and Haegele worked in regions of Manhattan with the highest percentages of COVID-19 cases and death tolls.

“I was essentially serving in the epicenter of the epicenter this past spring,” she said. 

Several family members typically cohabitate in the apartments where Haegele worked. These apartments were sometimes so small that a rolling walker could not fit through the hallway or bathroom. Because of the tiny spaces, most of her patients' family members were ill with the virus too, coughing, and not always wearing masks during Haegele’s visits because of lack of access to PPE.

“I was treating several of my home care patients in their own personal beds because they were too sick to physically leave their home,” she said. “Some of my patients survived being on a ventilator for more than a month.”

“Working in a hospital environment is much more controlled,” Haegele continued. “Family members were required to stay home and a patient’s belongings were isolated. In homes, a caregiver must be aware of the many different surfaces which could be hosting viral droplets.”

N95 respirator masks were readily available at the hospital—a necessity Haegele was not provided in a home health setting. Switching to a team based approach to care also offered her crucial support.   

“This has helped me immensely. The community and support of my colleagues is what kept me going in the middle of such unprecedented circumstances,” she said. “I did not have that luxury in home health where I was completely alone in providing care.”

Haegele explained the hospital life is not without its challenges, but having a medical team around you helps practitioners share the burden.

“Several of my physical therapy co-workers walked into patient rooms to deliver care and found their patient deceased,” she said. “During non-pandemic times, this can still happen, but nowhere near the rate and pace it’s occurring during the pandemic. It was otherworldly.”

“Physical therapists, nurses, and physicians — we were all going through the same thing in the hospital during the height of the pandemic. We were working on teams for the same patients,” Haegele continued. “Now that New York City has flattened the curve, we are still supporting one another in the aftermath of our emotional trauma and hoping to ward off a ‘second wave.’”

Although New York’s case numbers are declining, Haegele said that the past five months have been a learning curve. When she first began treating COVID-19 patients, the symptoms were not completely understood and the protocol for treatment had not yet found concreteness.

 “It was a challenge to reconcile the lack of understanding with wanting to provide the best care possible,” she said. “I had to give myself grace and acknowledge that I was doing the very best I could with the information I was provided at that time.” 

While the health care community nationwide continues to search for better treatments, preventative measures, and protocols to eliminate the virus, Haegele expressed her gratitude to the mentors, professors, and peers she has formed relationships with from her time at UK.

 “I have a renewed sense of pride in my profession, and a sense of appreciation for the training I had at UK through the DPT program,” she said, “The faculty’s consistent support proves my experience at UK was very genuine. I couldn’t be prouder of my UK DPT classmates and how physiotherapists at large, even globally, have been able to help people recover from and even survive COVID-19.”