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Living and Leading Through the Pandemic: Bill Surkis '90

Bill is the internal medicine program director and interim associate vice president for medical affairs at Lankenau Medical Center in Philadelphia and associate chief academic officer at Main Line Health.

What changed about your work day during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bill Surkis '90

One of my first goals was to think about personal protective equipment to ensure we were taking care of our medical professionals, which included figuring out ways to sustain our mask use and creating an infrastructure for mask sterilization.

In terms of patients, what was most startling to see was that this disease gets them so sick so quickly. We all know about older people or those with pre-existing conditions suffering, but there were many patients who were young and healthy who were becoming very sick and needed support breathing. The scary thing has been not knowing why some otherwise healthy patients become critically ill and others don’t— we don’t yet understand the genetics of the disease to know the difference.

What has been the most challenging part of your job since the pandemic began?

The moment we had to start closing our hospital doors to visitors was one of the most upsetting experiences that those of us in the field have faced. We are trained in patient-and family-centered care, and to suddenly not be able to allow families nearby when patients were dying was very hard. We acquired a large number of iPhones and started holding bedside FaceTimes, but not having the families near wrestled with our heartstrings.

Early on, not having access to quick testing was also a huge challenge —we’d have to wait two to eight days for results. Once we could test patients immediately, it made a tremendous difference in our ability to care for them.

How do you maintain your own mental well-being? What advice do you have for other medical professionals?

This period is the most stressed I’ve ever seen my profession — it’s having a serious impact on [medical professionals’] mental health. My approach is to reach out for psychotherapy and use meditative techniques; I’m a big believer in good mental healthcare, which made a difference in dealing with my own sleep issues and anxiety. We’re all human beings who face stress and anxiety, so it’s important to identify that and take action.

What makes you most proud?

I’ve been most proud of how the medical community has come together — from physicians, nurses and respiratory specialists, to those who clean the hospital, the cooks in the cafeteria and the security officers who keep us safe. It’s been wonderful to see the united culture of everyone supporting each other as a family. The kind things people have been doing for those who work in healthcare are also heartwarming. Those little gestures mean so much and helped lift us up during a very difficult time.