Front-line Faces: 'We're able to pull a lot of people back from the brink'

July 21, 2020
Dr. Jeffrey McMurray
Dr. Jeffrey McMurray has been taking care of COVID intensive care unit patients since late June. Photo by Sarah Pack

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of profile stories of MUSC Health front-line health care workers who are providing medical care and support to patients with COVID-19.

As the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized at MUSC Health in Charleston remains above 100, with more than 30 in intensive care and about 20 on ventilators, Jeffrey McMurray, M.D., is grateful for the teamwork that goes into trying to help them recover. McMurray, an anesthesiologist with fellowship training in intensive care medicine, works in MUSC Health’s COVID ICUs.

“We’re able to pull a lot of people back from the brink, which is good to see,” he said.

The number of hospitalized COVID patients at MUSC Health in Charleston was in the single digits until mid-June. Then, it began to increase steadily, first topping 100 in early July and staying close to that number since then. MUSC Health opened COVID ICUs for the patients who need them.

“They have pretty severe respiratory failure. They’re critically ill,” McMurray said of the COVID ICU patients. “Most of them are 40 and older. There are a few younger folks in there. COVID is just part of our daily lives now.”

That means the COVID ICU team stays busy. “We’ve all had to take on extra challenges, but certainly during my time in the COVID ICU, I’ve never felt overwhelmed. We have good numbers of staff, with a large group of medical residents, nurses and respiratory therapists. 

“We’re very fortunate that we have a number of specialized physicians on campus, lots of consultants and a lot of resources. But I definitely feel especially for doctors in smaller community hospitals who don’t normally have patients this sick and in these numbers. I can only imagine they’re feeling a little overwhelmed.”

At MUSC Health, streamlined processes help prevent that. Working in the COVID ICUs means carefully “donning” and “doffing” personal protective equipment. “They have to go in there for hours at a time dressed in PPE. You can’t drink water, you can’t use the restroom. You have a big process to go in and out. It can be a little taxing in some ways, but I’m very impressed by how well everyone works together,” McMurray said.

They prioritize making sure the patients’ wishes are respected and keeping family members up to date. “Normally families can come and go in our ICUs and see their loved ones. But here, they’re not allowed to visit. So the nurses have done a great job doing video chatting so family members can see their loved ones in there.”

The COVID ICU team also keeps up with the latest information on

what might help patients recover. “I think there’s new treatment stuff that comes out every day in terms of the promising results with potential with steroids like Decadron, Remdesivir and other therapies,” McMurray said.

“At the end of the day, we use the knowledge that we’ve gained from the last decade of advancements of taking care of folks with acute respiratory distress in terms of lung protective ventilation, appropriate medications and your basic universal ICU-supportive-level care. So we’re learning some new things, but what we know about patients with similar illnesses still applies to them. We’re using all those efforts to kind of standardize our treatment and provide the best care that we’re able to.”

At the end of the workday, McMurray is careful to protect the health of two other people who are very important to him: his wife and 2-year-old daughter. “I self-monitor every day and take precautions.” 

And he makes a point of focusing on success stories – especially the ones that surprise him. “I was in a COVID unit the last week of June, the first few days of July. I had a couple of patients who were very, very ill. I honestly didn’t think they were going to pull through.”

But when McMurray, who’s juggling his work in the operating room and cardiovascular and medical surgical intensive care units with his time in the COVID ICUs, returned, he got a surprise. “When I came back a week and a few days later, they had actually made pretty significant improvement. It was nice to see.”

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