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Ophthalmology Resident Dr. Karen Wai Shares Her Experience Caring for COVID-19 Patients

In April 2020, the Greater Boston region was experiencing the peak of a COVID-19 outbreak. Mass Eye and Ear transformed the 10th floor inpatient unit into an acute medical unit to care for patients who were recovering from COVID-19 after recently being released from the Intensive Care Unit at neighboring Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Karen Wai, a first-year ophthalmology resident at the time, was one of several Mass Eye and Ear clinical trainees who volunteered to staff the COVID-19 recovery floor for six weeks at the height of the pandemic. She shares her experience in the interview below.

Why did you decide to volunteer on the Mass Eye and Ear COVID-19 recovery floor? 

I volunteered to work on the COVID-19 recovery floor because I wanted to contribute to the greater cause. In the lead up to the COVID-19 surge in Boston, I knew healthcare workers were going to be in high demand. Since all non-emergency Mass Eye and Ear appointments and surgeries were temporarily postponed to protect patients, I reached out to volunteer as part of the COVID workforce to help with patients’ rehabilitation on the 10th floor. I completed a transitional year in medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City before starting my ophthalmology residency training, and felt that I could re-apply the skills I had gained to help patients during the pandemic.

What was your experience like working on the COVID recovery floor?

Dr. Karen Wai in the Mass General lobby during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I had an extremely positive experience. As we were a rehabilitation unit, it was immensely satisfying to watch patients regain their strength and return home to their families after being hospitalized and completely isolated for so long, sometimes for many months. Our team was able to provide comprehensive medical care, as well as support from physical therapy, occupational therapy, and social work as they recuperated from the virus. Our patients were eager to regain their strength so that they could go back home and be with their loved ones.

I was grateful to be working with such an excellent team: Our attending hospitalist, nurse practitioners, residents (across ophthalmology and otolaryngology), case managers and social workers, physical and occupational therapists, and nurses were all incredibly dedicated to our patients’ care and recovery.

What kind of care were you providing to COVID recovery patients?

The recovery unit was created to help treat patients who had been severely deconditioned from long hospital stays at Mass General and needed daily monitoring and rehabilitative care before being able to safely return home.

After weeks or months in an intensive care unit under sedation and needing a breathing tube, many patients needed occupational and physical therapy to regain their ability to speak properly or walk unassisted. We were able to work with our rehabilitation services to help these patients gain their strength back so that they could go home to their families.

Dr. Karen Wai performing surgery prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did your previous training help prepare you for working on the floor?

As a first-year ophthalmology resident largely working in the Mass Eye and Ear Emergency Department, I gained a very niche knowledge and skillset specific to ophthalmology. However, much of the work on the recovery unit still required the interdisciplinary teamwork and operational skills that were part of the foundation of my residency training. I also relied heavily on the skills that I learned during my medical transitional year at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The care we were providing to patients required consistent collaboration with nurses, technicians, and other providers across the hospital. Our success as a recovery unit stemmed from our ability to work as a team toward a common goal: helping our patients return home.

What was your biggest takeaway from your experience working on the recovery floor?

This experience has made me grateful to be working at such a wonderful institution, with such great people – especially my incredibly supportive group of fellow co-residents. I was incredibly impressed with the dedication, kindness, and hard work that everyone put in while caring for patients during the pandemic.

5 thoughts on “Ophthalmology Resident Dr. Karen Wai Shares Her Experience Caring for COVID-19 Patients”

  1. Dr. Wai exemplifies many qualities that are inherent to good physicians, fellows, and residents. Despite her early years in the field of Ophthalmology, she, like many other healthcare providers, jumped at providing care in a field other than their own when it was needed most. Bravo Dr. Wai 🙂

  2. Interesting to read your experience–thanks for sharing! Mass Eye and Ear helped me a few years ago by diagnosing a hearing-related condition. You’re one of their great physicians!

  3. Wonderful article. Greater Boston area is very fortunate to have such dedicated, enterprising, smart healthcare providers! Dr. Wai’s willingness to step in and help patients suffering from this terrible virus is inspiring and a reminder about importance of helping our fellow citizens.

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