Coronavirus

Life Behind the Front Lines: Out-of-State Doctors Battle COVID-19 in New York City

Two doctors from across the country became heroes in New York’s Big Apple as they volunteered their services to a Brooklyn hospital

NBC New York

“It’s like riding the cyclone,” said Dr. Edwin Kuffner, describing the peak of the COVID-19 fight at Coney Island Hospital. In Kuffner's daily life he is Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer of Consumer Health.

Heeding the city’s call for doctors, Kuffner left his C-suite position and family in Pennsylvania to work as an emergency medicine doctor at Coney Island Hospital.

To Kuffner, this was more than pitching in, it was a comeback. Originally from Long Island, he completed his medical school training in Brooklyn and emergency training in Bellevue.

Kuffner arrived at Coney Island prior to the surge as cases were ramping up. Upon arrival, he was met by an emergency staff down by 40% after many on their team suffered from COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus brings challenges never seen before by physicians forced to act on the fly, such as skyrocketing case numbers and varying symptoms that attack all ages. The virus can cause complications such as heart attacks and strokes, even in healthy individuals.

“I had to wear multiple hats - be an ICU doctor, admitting doctor, and an ER doctor at the same time,” described Chairman and CEO of Certa Dose, Dr. Caleb Hernandez, who traveled from Colorado to join Kuffner on the Brooklyn front lines.

Dr. Edwin Kuffner & Dr. Caleb Hernandez
Dr. Hernandez & Dr. Kuffner working at Coney Island Hospital.

Running out of ventilators and oxygen, hospital alarms seemed constant. Hernandez shared it felt intimidating and terrifying being in a room full of people actively dying.

Hernandez related patient monitor sounds to a pinball machine. “Every single patient monitor would go off and not just for one reason. Imagine the sound of a running pinball machine. The only thing is that sound means that someone is dying.”

To date, the case numbers for the tri-state have crossed 500,000. New York State encompasses about 330,000 of those cases, while the city alone faces more than 183,000.

Within a few weeks, both doctors found sources of strength in their fight against COVID, but the lingering isolation for patients still remained a challenge. Kuffner and Hernandez made sure their patients did not go through this tragedy alone. “Our motto was ‘treat them like family.’ We were their emergency department family,” said Kuffner.

The generosity and outreach of the Brooklyn community kept the doctors motivated during strenuous times. Hernandez recalled the time a young girl made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his entire floor. Kuffner shared how he returned to his temporary home to find a bag full of heartwarming, handwritten neighborhood messages.

“There are things you get over your career that you’re really proud of – diplomas, certificates. But these notes from the kids…those I will cherish for years to come and have the same significance,” Kuffner said.

Dr. Edwin Kuffner & Dr. Caleb Hernandez
Empty hospital beds in tent construction outside Coney Island Hospital parking lot.

With Johnson & Johnson researching a vaccine, Kuffner said that the company has a candidate working into clinical trials. From previous experience creating vaccines for HIV and Ebola, the medical executive feels confident in the expertise of his team. Despite knowing the effectiveness and remaining hopeful, the pharmaceutical company is scaling up production for millions of doses globally.

Dr. Kuffner and Dr. Hernandez, were featured in Johnson & Johnson’s online series, The Road to a Vaccine, airing on Tuesdays at 12p.m. on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and JnJ.com.

Copyright NBC New York
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