Gregory Margolin, D.O.’97, FCCP, FCCM, knows that a vaccine won’t make the coronavirus magically disappear. “We’re not going to be able to completely shield ourselves from this disease,” he says. “We’re going to have to learn to live with it.”
When the coronavirus surge struck New York City this spring, Margolin jumped at the chance to join the fight against it at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, the hardest-hit hospitals in the metro. He intubated 15 patients on his first day. He worked with other health care providers who he says came to help despite being “well out of their scope of practice” but who “stepped up so heroically, it inspires.”
He also praises those providers for working to improve efficient delivery of services and practicing what he calls “MacGyverism,” being creative and improvising like the famously resourceful star of the 1980s ABC television series.
“It’s the most learning I’ve done in my life,” he stated in a video he posted on Facebook. “I met so many amazing people.”
He himself “MacGyvered” a scuba mask as part of his PPE. That led to his contacting the Australian engineer who made it and to two former Navy Seals who supply equipment to the U.S. Department of Defense, and that led this motley crew to file for a patent on improvements they made.
“It’s a total lark, but the mask does provide superior protection for users,” he says.
Margolin worked in New York from mid- April through July. Experienced at managing a large number of patients but knowing he wouldn’t have time to perform procedures or talk with families, he partnered with a vascular surgeon who could handle those aspects of care. He utilized “floating” physician assistants to handle the proning of patients, a process that requires five people, every two hours, to turn a patient with precise, safe motions onto the stomach as a way to increase oxygen to the bottom and back portions of the lungs. A group of Navy reservists who arrived to help added to what he calls “a mixed bag of medicine – a heterogeneous mix of people with diverse skill sets.”
“In that setting, we all were grateful to be able to make contributions,” he says. “My greatest regret is that I didn’t go to New York a month earlier.”
Margolin, who has transitioned to a critical care position with Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, was featured in May with three other traveling doctors on NBC’s “Today” program for what correspondent Cynthia McFadden described as running into “the burning building.” He declines praise as a “hero,” however, for what he says was doing his job.
“The real story is not about me. The real story is the absolute failure of our health system. We were caught with our pants down during the first wave and took a while to respond, with horrific things that happened along the way,” he says.
An example: Because of the shut-down of elective surgeries and decline in non- COVID-19 patients, some hospitals furloughed nurses not in the emergency department or in critical care – yet they threatened to fire those nurses if they asked to be allowed to go to hotspots to help.
“A lot of those nurses were left home, twiddling their thumbs,” he says. “That nurses were threatened economically is one of the system’s largest tragedies.”