Graduates from VP&S Class of 2020 Take on COVID-19 in New Hospital Roles

May 13, 2020
From left: VP&S Class of 2020 graduates Julie Hwang, Randy Casals, and Tyler Cooke (photo: Jennifer O'Rourke)
From left: VP&S Class of 2020 graduates Julie Hwang, Randy Casals, and Tyler Cooke (photo: Jennifer O'Rourke)

Julie Hwang’s honeymoon in Bora Bora, with her husband and VP&S classmate Michael Chun, is postponed indefinitely. Instead, she coordinates patient transfers from the command center at Columbia's Baker Athletics Complex at 218th Street, where a field hospital opened in April for recovering COVID-19 patients from overburdened wards nearby.

She is one of 88 graduates from the VP&S Class of 2020 who graduated early on April 15 and now work to support health care workers at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital before moving on to residencies. The majority of the assignments are remote, with some newly minted doctors continuing their pre-graduation work for the COVID-19 Student Service Corps with more complex workloads in telemedicine and data analytics. Some graduates, such as Hwang, offered and were called to on-site work in roles that are not patient-facing to assist overstretched front-line workers. 

“Columbia and NYP have been very conscientious about how to put us into effective roles that are not beyond the scope of what we can handle,” Hwang said. 

Randy Casals and Tyler Cooke, graduates of the VP&S Class of 2020, helped to create a centralized telemetry station and develop a protocol for responding to alerts in a newly converted intensive care unit so that all heart monitors can be seen from one location on the sprawling floor.

“These months are supposed to be like a release valve on the stress of medical school before the stress of residency starts,” Casals said. He has felt a little angry, he admits, at this virus and this pandemic, and the opportunity to help is a salve. 

“I am still learning, and I am feeling involved,” he said.  

Another recent graduate, Mary Raddawi, spends her days at her parents’ dining room table in Illinois speaking mostly Spanish over the phone with discharged COVID-19 patients. With faculty physician supervision, she monitors each for seven to 14 days, which includes advising patients to take their temperature, providing instructions on how to adjust oxygen levels for those discharged with a tank, and listening to their concerns.

“There are a few on my panel that I can tell are waiting for the call. It is just very comforting for them,” Raddawi said. “They can relax and spend the rest of the day knowing ‘I’m OK today. Everything is going in the right direction.’”

Maggie Bogardus is working from her parents’ home before returning to Columbia for residency. She reviews variables in patient charts to input into national, state, and local COVID-19 databases and acknowledges that while immersing in patient histories from the comfort of her home in Connecticut, she feels disconnected from the reality in New York City.

“I know I am not the one making the biggest sacrifices here in terms of dealing with COVID-19,” said  Bogardus. “We are doing important work, so I don’t want to minimize it. That said, we are all feeling—myself included—ready, willing, able, and trusting that the hospital is going to call us to where we will be the most help, and we will go there.”

Meanwhile, Hwang in the command center at 218th Street has a view of the front lines: A television live stream allows her to communicate with doctors in full PPE in the field hospital. That view has made her realize the magnitude of challenges that hospitals face, but also the progress being made. Three patients were transferred on her first day of work. After she and colleagues developed a new protocol to make it as simple as possible for the front-line physicians to approve, the daily transfers tripled.

“Every health care provider is giving it their all,” says Hwang, who will begin a residency in anesthesiology at Columbia this July. “Maybe this is what it means to be a physician.” 

She feels a complex mix of pride for her colleagues, guilt for her relative safety, and caution that New Yorkers should not grow complacent about social distancing measures. While recent medical school graduates are doing their part, she says, the medical community needs everyone’s help.

-Julia Hickey is staff writer for the VP&S Alumni Association.