The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2020–2021

“It’s the difficult times that bring us together.”

Paula Jernigan, MD
Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine

Dr. Paula Jernigan has specialized in lung disease and critical care medicine for more than 20 years. But COVID-19 was different from anything in her experience.

“These patients behaved differently, medically, from any other lung patients I’ve seen. For instance, patients with pneumonia or COPD do better upright. They do better walking than standing, standing than sitting, sitting than lying down. But COVID patients do better lying down. COVID patients often develop blood clots. They can have neurologic changes.

“And at the beginning, it was all so new — to everyone in the world. You just had to dive in and do the best you could. You had to be flexible and pick and choose which parts of your experience you lean on the most, because not all of your experience helps with this disease. You had to be open to suggestions from people who also have their eyes on the patient and have a slightly different perspective. You have to be very quick to make adjustments and pay close attention to the differences from what your experience would predict.

“It has been truly rewarding to care for these patients.” 
- Dr. Jernigan

“It has been truly rewarding to care for these patients.”

As soon as 4 East became UPMC Shadyside’s COVID unit, Dr. Jernigan was assigned to the unit. For five weeks in a row in March and April 2020, with 10 to 15 COVID patients a day, she took one day off. “With two kids at home, I had to do laundry,” she laughs.

“I will never forget the camaraderie of our team of caregivers. It was very much a community. Nurses, respiratory and physical therapists, aides, administrators, maintenance people — everybody came together to make this work. The infectious disease docs were on the phone with us, we were on the phone with them. The community sent us lunches.

“During the whole five weeks I was on that unit, I never heard a cross word from anybody. It was like I imagined boot camp would be. It’s an awful situation, but you’re all in it together, and that makes it doable. It’s the difficult times that bring us together.”

Because COVID patients are sick for so long, Dr. Jernigan also got to know many of them and their families.

“I called every family every day. They understood that we were doing the best we could. The son-in-law of one of our patients was a critical care physician in Michigan, so he was going through what we were. Those were good conversations, exchanging ideas with him.

“This was and is a fascinating time to practice medicine. It has been the most dramatic experience of my career to date. Now I feel ready for something not quite as exciting in the future!”