Thank you letter from Dean Polonsky and Sharon O'Keefe

Healthcare workers in PPE testing patients in a car

With cases of COVID-19 spreading throughout Chicago and Illinois, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are on the frontlines of the pandemic as they care for these critically ill patients rapidly filling our hospitals to capacity.

Healthcare workers cannot shelter in place with their loved ones. They are not 6 feet away from their patients. They put themselves at risk every single shift. And when they go home, they worry about exposing their families.

Facing enormous challenges, they are responding with courage, resolve and exemplary professionalism.

At the University of Chicago Medicine, hundreds of doctors volunteered to care for COVID-19 patients, before even being asked. Construction crews worked night and day to build a dedicated space in the emergency department for patients with COVID-like symptoms. Pediatric emergency room nurses have taken turns rotating into the adult ED to help with the increase in patients.

Our medical students are pitching in to provide coronavirus education on the phone, donating blood and making facemasks, which are in short supply nationwide, preparing for the moment they are needed. Basic scientists from across the University are working with clinicians and hospital leaders to develop creative ways of overcoming shortages and new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

These are just some of the examples of the commitment our faculty, staff, residents and students have as they take on this common threat.

The medical and scientific community is working to advance understanding of the virus that causes COVID-19, and to understand why some patients remain asymptomatic and others become critically ill; to improve testing so that we can more accurately make the diagnosis; to develop effective treatments; and to develop a vaccine to prevent this disease once and for all.

At UChicago Medicine, we are initiating important clinical trials, and our physicians will have access to promising therapies on a compassionate-use basis for patients not responding to standard therapies.

An app developed by two of our physicians provides up-to-date COVID information to clinicians on the ground, as well as direct phone numbers to patient rooms to help minimize exposure risks. In the last month, our clinical pathways team has worked around the clock, including weekends, to build and update guidelines for clinical decisions on diagnostic testing, personal protective equipment and treatments for those critically ill with COVID-19. These were shared publicly to provide guidance other hospital systems may use.

We know that similar efforts are going on at hospitals in the Chicago area and across the country, with close collaboration between doctors, nurses, hospital leaders and staff from a variety of different disciplines as everyone focuses their efforts to come up with innovative and creative mechanisms to meet this challenge. In addition, there has been close collaboration among hospitals and city, state and federal public health experts and agencies.

National Doctors’ Day is celebrated each year on March 30 to recognize the contributions of physicians to individual lives and the communities they serve. This year, as the global pandemic rages across the nation and our own city, all of us should recognize and thank our doctors and their colleagues — the millions of selfless and courageous healthcare workers serving at the forefront of the fight against this insidious virus.

We have a dedicated team of physicians, nurses, technologists and support staff taking care of patients on the frontline. And there are scores of teams supporting them — from environmental services and social work to spiritual care and many others. They all have been working every day knowing they are at risk of exposure, amid an underlying concern of running out of personal protective equipment and the possibility of exposing their families as well.

Despite all of this, they continue to provide the highest level of care possible. Their dedication is a true inspiration, and we are honored to help lead an organization made up of people like them.

Today, as we continue to collectively experience a change in our daily routines that is impacting so many of us in so many different ways, let us remember to thank our physicians, nurses, and all healthcare workers and support staff who are risking their own health to care for the most vulnerable among us. They truly deserve our thanks and our support.

Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD, is Dean of the Biological Sciences Division and Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Chicago. Sharon O’Keefe retired as President of the University of Chicago Medical Center in July 2020.