On the front lines for months, a critical care unit physician focuses on hope for the future

On the front lines for months, a critical care unit physician focuses on hope for the future

After caring for patients battling COVID-19 in the critical care unit throughout the spring and summer, an exhausted Dr. Dave Barounis drove home, changed out of his scrubs in the garage, placed them in a garbage bag and scampered upstairs to take a shower.

With three young daughters and his wife at home, Barounis wasn’t taking any chances. He knew his work on the front lines of the pandemic put him at risk of contracting the virus and possibly spreading it to his family at any given moment.

With knowledge of COVID-19 still evolving during the early days of the pandemic, Barounis was extra cautious after his long shifts at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. As the medical director of the critical care unit, Barounis was caring for patients battling the coronavirus, in addition to his work coordinating the unit’s strategic and logistical plans for handling the surge.

Barounis often reluctantly skipped reading bedtime stories with his children. Sometimes, he slept in the basement.

“You often think, ‘What would happen if I got sick?’” Barounis said.

While he usually no longer takes such drastic measures, Barounis said the dangers and stressors of the coronavirus are always present. The risks to the community, caring for sick patients and the wellbeing of his clinical colleagues at Christ Medical Center — not to mention his own safety — are constantly whirring in his mind.

“No matter what, you feel there’s a concern when you go to work,” Barounis said. “There was definitely fear. I don’t think that gets better with time. I think you just figure out a way to deal with it.”

Barounis has been fighting COVID-19 since the very beginning of the pandemic, even as the virus was only a whisper in the United States. As news of the deadly disease slowly began to spread across the globe in January 2020, Barounis began to find as many medical studies and news reports he could find to educate himself about the virus. By February, when a physician friend in the Seattle area called him with reports of the fast-spreading virus ravaging a Washington nursing facility, Barounis knew it was time to brace for the arrival of COVID-19 in Illinois.

Together with his colleagues, Barounis began to formulate a plan for how Christ Medical Center was going to handle the onslaught of patients that began to arrive at the facility. They scrambled to make space for new patients, find and equip team members with personal protective equipment, model future patient needs and eventually clear dedicated space on different floors of the medical center for COVID-positive patients.

“You can’t imagine how quickly things escalated,” Barounis said.

The efforts took a remarkable amount of collaboration. The medical, cardiology, surgery and neurosurgery intensive care units all worked hand-in-hand to develop a care plan for patients, coordinating and sharing clinical staff.

The days were long. The work was physically and emotionally taxing.

“The unknown,” Barounis said, “is very scary.”

But Barounis and the critical care staff persevered, making it through the initial first wave, honing their processes, techniques and efforts along the way.

Watching patients suffer took its toll. Barounis said watching firsthand how the virus ravaged patients underscored the importance of communicating to others, especially skeptics, that the virus was a serious danger. It can be challenging for friends who knew people that contracted COVID-19 and recovered with minimal symptoms to grasp the severity of the situation, he said.

“This is a real thing,” Barounis told them. “And it really makes a difference how you act, in terms of staying home or wearing your mask.”

Despite the despair of 2020, Barounis is trying to focus on hope and the future. Receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine with other frontline personnel, he said, marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“I have to remain hopeful, otherwise it would be very hard to do this consistently,” Barounis said. “Once we get to the point where enough people have received the vaccine, I think that will help turn the corner this year. This is not going to be the way we have to live forever.”

Throughout it all, Barounis relied on his teammates and colleagues at the critical care unit and throughout the medical center. Everyone — from the physicians and nurses to the cleaning crews who made sure rooms and hallways are safe — have pitched in to fight COVID-19 and provide the best possible care for patients along the way.

“So much went into this as a team,” Barounis said. “There’s no one person who could have done this without all of the help of all of the other people involved. The coolest thing was to see how people come together. It was amazing to see.”

Click here for more stories about doctors, nurses and others working on the front lines.

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Patrick M. O’Connell

Patrick M. O'Connell, health enews contributor, is a member of Advocate Aurora Health's public affairs team. He previously worked as a reporter at news outlets throughout the Midwest, most recently the Chicago Tribune. He enjoys playing and coaching baseball and basketball, hiking, reading, listening to podcasts, karaoke and spending time in nature with his family.