MCPHS Responds: Karly Neuss MSOT '19
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers all over the world have been called upon to face new risks and unprecedented challenges. They have continued to do their jobs—and more—in the most trying of circumstances.
As a healthcare education university, MCPHS has seen students, alumni, faculty, and staff perform bravely on the front lines in a variety of healthcare roles. We want to shine a light on some of these individuals and their work in the time of coronavirus. We encourage you, members of the MCPHS community, to share your frontline stories using the hashtag #MCPHSResponds.
Ordinarily, Karly Neuss's work as an occupational therapist at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan involves working with patients who have suffered medical events like brain injuries and strokes, helping them recover their ability to complete the everyday activities they perform in their home and communities. It's acute rehab, and the goal is to provide three hours of therapy daily to get patients home and out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. She works closely with the rehabilitation team to do so, and it's rewarding work with visible results.
In the winter she and her colleagues started hearing about coronavirus. It was scary news, but it wasn't in their hospital. It was work as usual at Bellevue. "And then we walked in to work one day," in March, says Neuss, "and everything began to change." A couple of weeks after the pandemic started, suddenly "we started to see COVID-19 patients on the rehabilitation floor. For some we were unsure they got it, how they got it, how long we had been treating them with COVID and not knowing it." The virus had entered the hospital, and New York City was seeing cases go up by the day.
"At first it was pretty overwhelming," says Neuss. When COVID-19 became a reality at Bellevue, the hospital took immediate measures to protect patients and staff. CDC guidelines were implemented, and staff were provided with N95 masks. "My supervisors at the hospital did a great job of educating us and keeping us updated….They've been really supportive of our mental health, making sure that they're checking in with us, making sure that we're OK. The hospital offered counseling services, and in multiple ways have they supported us mentally and physically throughout COVID."
That support has been needed. Neuss says that the patients who were admitted to the rehab unit increasingly were people recovering from COVID-19—and they were incredibly ill, weakened, and fatigued. "The things that we take for granted everyday, like bringing a toothbrush or a fork to our mouth, they're not able to do," she says. COVID-19 patients exhibited "severe debility, acute skin failure, musculoskeletal disorders, proximal upper limb weakness, decreased endurance, and ICU delirium." The priorities of the OT team shifted, and Neuss and her colleagues began to focus on "upper extremity evaluations related to brachial plexus nerve innervation, cognitive evaluations, providing appropriate seating systems and education on skin management techniques in collaboration with the rehabilitation team, breathing techniques, and activity modification."
The work was intense. But for Karly, work was where she wanted to be. New Yorkers—including Karly's roommates, were leaving the city in droves. And no one could quite understand what it was like to be working on the front lines like her colleagues could. She felt alone in the beginning. "As weird as this might sound," Karly says, "being home was so lonely and so scary that being at work was actually kind of a savior for me. Being able to be around my coworkers who were there to provide emotional support, and being able to help during this epidemic—that gave me the strength to be able to power through it." Karly says that she's grown extremely close with her coworkers at Bellevue. "I can call my mom. I can call my friends. But they don't understand how I'm feeling. When you come to work, you know that the people you're working with understand to a T exactly what you're going through."
So while living in an epicenter of a global pandemic, Karly has made a profound impact on her patients' lives while finding support and comfort in her fellow healthcare workers. She appreciates it when people see her in her scrubs and thank her for what she's doing. And, she says, "As hard as it is to see how COVID really debilitates each individual it impacts, every improvement made, every time we send somebody home, it's one of the most rewarding feelings I've ever felt. When you think of how many people died from this, you think of how many people didn't even make it to the hospital doors—and then you see someone, after being here for two months, walking out—that's a good feeling."