In the year 2020, the term “front line” took on an entirely new meaning.
No longer is the front line describing only our brave men and women serving in the United States armed forces around the world who are battling our enemies and keeping us safe. Still, it is applied, rightfully so, to our health care workers, police, firefighters, and all others who are tirelessly working during the COVID-19 pandemic, risking their lives to protect and save our lives.
Elias Anthony Iliadis, MD, FACC, FSCAI, RPVI, a cardiologist at Cooper University Health Care, is one of the many who are on the front line of this pandemic. His daily tales of the experiences of what he sees seems to be the norm and not unusual, during this crisis.
Dr, Iliadis is a graduate of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and completed his internship and residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and Cardiology Fellowship at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke/s Medical Center in Chicago.
He is an active member of the Greek-American community in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, including being a parish board member and officer of the St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church in Cherry Hill. He is also a founding member of the Philadelphia Medical Society of Philadelphia. One to always lend a helping hand, whether, in the operating room or cooking souvlaki for the Church’s Greek Festival, Dr. Iliadis is there. His family, friends, and the entire Greek-American community, and the South Jersey community, in general, appreciate the doctor’s love for community and dedication to his family, including his wife, Katherine Dedes Iliadis, RPH, and their three children, Sophia, Nicholas, and Elena.
Describe the current working conditions, facts, and the patience you are handling?
In New Jersey, the state government has established regional COVID Centers, and Cooper University Hospital is a southern region site for COVID patients. Our administration, in following the CDC guidelines, has canceled all elective procedures to make room for these patients. COVID patients have a range of severity of illness. Fortunately, nearly eighty percent are either no or mild symptoms and can be managed home with supportive care and fever medication. Twenty percent of COVID patients are admitted to hospital, and five percent of all COVID patients require a ventilator and are gravely ill. These last two groups are the patients that my partners and I are managing at this time. Though an interventional cardiologist, I have critical care and shock experience, and as such, have been asked to manage these patients. Our acuity level of patients in our center is very high, and these patients are very ill and require a lot of resources.
What challenges do you foresee?
In the short term, the healthcare community needs support to manage these high resource and critically ill patients through this medical crisis. The community support of healthcare workers has been amazing and uplifting. This will be a long and challenging time as we begin to understand the virus and its disease course.
In the long term, the medical community must address several important questions about the virus and the illness it causes. This would include corona testing of whom in the general population (no symptoms, mild symptoms, etc.), the development of antiviral medication against the virus, and other medicine to direct against the illness and shorten the disease course. Other therapies which will need to be explored include vaccines for the general population and the use, if any, of convalescent plasma for treatment of the critically ill.
You are Greek Orthodox, how has your faith played in this crisis?
As an Orthodox Christian, we believe in the wisdom and compassion of Jesus Christ and the support and love of our God. As a physician, I see what medical science has taught us and have witnessed the power of prayer and the hand of God. I will admit that there are some patients, both now with COVID and before this, who were quite ill and we had done all we could do. When we see such patients make dramatic turnarounds and become well, I know it’s a power beyond medical science, and that’s the power of prayer and the hand of God.
Describe the medical staff, and what have you observed about this culture?
Presently, we are all hands on deck mentality, and the morale of the staff has been great because the community support has been so inspiring. We are receiving food donations almost every day from church and civic groups. Just the recognition of the efforts is, at times, enough, but donations of masks, equipment, cards, and such has been outstanding.
Share with us a moment that really moved, shocked, or inspired you?
We have had several recent patient care events that give us hope. A young woman with many medical problems developed a fever and shortness of breath. She declined and was placed on a ventilator. Every day she would give us the “thumbs up” and thank us for all we are doing. She said (via writing board) she will pray for us and brought many of us to tears. She is still fighting hard despite the obstacles, and we are working on her to beat this virus. She has inspired us all.
What should people understand about the Coronavirus?
The best therapy is avoidance and social distancing until directed drugs are available, and vaccines are widespread to immunize the world. Otherwise, the healthcare system may be overwhelmed (peak versus flattening the curve), and care may not be provided adequately as happened in New York City. Because of the delay between exposure and symptoms, the time duration of social distancing should be maintained to avoid spread and possibly re-infections.
How are you protecting yourself while you’re on the job and then going home to your family? What cautions have you taken?
At the hospital, we are double-masked, face mask, blue gowned in place, and double glove in all COVID patients. We are routinely wearing masks for all patients and even in the halls. My Greek wife, Katherine, makes me strip me out of scrubs in the utility room and change immediately before entering the home. I listen to the Greek lady if I know what’s good for me as she does not want COVID in her house.
One of the patients you worked on, John Pratsinakis, was a close friend of yours from the St. Thomas Greek Orthodox community. How did this affect you? Describe his current state.
John was quite ill, and his plight was described on social media by his daughter Katerina to alert the community of his illness. The local and national community has responded with love and support, as well as many prayers. I am happy to say that he has recovered from COVID and should be home with his family soon. As an example, a wonderful person came to his home from over two hours away and provided his wife with an icon and healing oils. I placed them at his bedside and asked the nurses to put the oils on his feet. I cannot measure the power of prayer but have seen it many times, including with John.
Being so close to him and his family does bring this pandemic close to home and makes it real. As part of his team and in addition to reviewing his care, I was able to bring my cell phone near him so his wife could speak with him, and we know the unconscious patients can hear it. Small things like the voices of loved ones make a difference. I am in awe of the ICU physicians and nurse technicians. What an amazing team in incredibly high stress and life-threatening situation, especially since we are putting our own lives in jeopardy.
You are investing a lot of time caring for patients. What toll has this taken on you, and how will you recover?
As a physician, I am doing what I trained and love to do, which is care for the sick. The stress does weigh on you over time, and though I thrive in high-stress environments, I have always used my family time to de-stress. Sometimes it’s the drive home in silence, and sometimes it’s Xbox with my son or walking with my daughters. Our Hellenic community and church life have been a refuge from the stress of jobs, especially now. I usually would attend services and sit and listen to the liturgy, especially during holy week. Currently, I participate in a distance, and it still brings some peace to my soul and mind.
Is there a message you would like to send out to the community?
Please do your part by
- Social distancing to avoid getting sick,
- Wash your hands to avoid transmissions, and
- If sick, stay home to avoid transmission. If you develop fever, treat your fever and self-quarantine. If you have a fever and shortness of breath, consider seeing a healthcare practitioner.