When she heard New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s call for doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to help counter the shortage of medical personnel during the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Anne Sacks-Berg knew exactly what she needed to do.
Sacks-Berg, an infectious disease specialist who had worked for three decades at Huntington Hospital, immediately texted the hospital’s CEO.
“I said that I’m in town and I’m available if they need me,” said Sacks-Berg, 67, of Huntington. “And he sent me a text back within a minute. And he said, ‘We will … standby.’”
A few days later, Sacks-Berg was back at the hospital working alongside a nurse practitioner, serving its employee health services department.
“We’re fielding calls,” Sacks-Berg said. “A lot of people are calling in worried about potential exposures, worried about their families and worried themselves, because they may have a fever.”
Cuomo said during a news conference in Albany on March 29 that some 76,000 health care workers across the state — many of them retirees — have volunteered to help in the fight against the coronavirus.
“Dr. Sacks-Berg is utilizing her years of experience as a nurse, infectious disease specialist physician and palliative care physician to help shepherd hospital staff through the anxiety of being tested for COVID-19, how to care for themselves and family members, and for those exposed or infected, when it is safe to return to work,” said Dr. Nick Fitterman, executive director at Huntington Hospital.
A day in the life
As she reprises her role as employee health services doctor for Huntington Hospital, Sacks-Berg is doing phone consultations with the 2,000 workers from her office there. “Just talking to people, sharing their results and giving them advice on how to quarantine at home, when they can return to work, that kind of thing,” she explained.
Her days are mostly spent relaying results to employees who have tested positive.
“We tell them how to quarantine themselves at home: stay away from family members; take their temperature a couple of times a day; drink fluids; take Tylenol, if needed, for fever; don’t go out into the public.” She said staff are advised they cannot return to work until seven days have passed, symptoms have improved and their temperature has not been more than 100 for three consecutive days, guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In advising patients to quarantine from family members, Sacks-Berg tells them to keep 6 feet of distance between them and, if possible, stay and sleep in an separate room without coming out — even to watch TV with their families.
“I recognize that they’ve already had contact before they got sick, but it’s still better to maximize the distance between them,” she said. “They should be staying in their room and certainly not sharing utensils or glasses, or that kind of thing.”
If family members are symptomatic, they could be tested; but Sacks-Berg said, following best practices, she’s not advising testing for people who are asymptomatic.
Road to infectious disease niche
After getting a nursing degree from Upstate Medical Center in her native Syracuse, Sacks-Berg worked as a registered nurse for four years before pursuing medical studies at Stony Brook School of Medicine.
“I moved down here to go to Stony Brook, and I never left,” she said. “I’ve been here since ’74.”
During her residency at what’s now NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, Sacks-Berg was inspired by the chief of infectious diseases, Dr. Burke Cunha, and decided to pursue the specialty.
“He was just a great teacher and just made everything so exciting,” she said.
In addition to her memorable mentor, Sacks-Berg was captivated by the global field of medicine that focused on tropical illnesses as well as common viruses.
Seeking a field where she would see a mix of people and not limit her focus to a specific body part, Sacks-Berg said, “I wanted to have a whole-body approach and to see different ages of people. And, also when I started my fellowship, almost every infectious disease had treatments and a good chance of successful treatment, as opposed to a lot of the other fields, like internal medicine, which is management of chronic illness.”
“It’s really interesting, in terms of problem solving,” she continued, adding that Dr. House, on the eponymous TV show "House," of which she was a fan, elucidated just how fascinating the field of infectious disease can be.
In 1991, Sacks-Berg began working as an attending physician for infectious disease at Huntington Hospital, hiring many of the doctors who still work there. She was the employee health doctor and the chair of the infection control division.
Before COVID-19, she’d practiced during the outbreak of the H1N1 virus a decade ago; because she didn’t do much outpatient work, however, she didn’t see HIV patients.
“In treating H1N1 patients, mainly what we did was a lot of education and vaccinations and readiness. And, luckily, we did not have a major onslaught of patients,” she explained. “It was manageable.”
Board-certified in infectious diseases and palliative medicine, Sacks-Berg retired in 2015 from Huntington Hospital. For the next four years, she worked in palliative medicine, or comfort and end-of-life care, and helped write a nursing home’s infection-control policies — until this past summer.
“In August, I decided I was done,” she recalled. “I have a new grandson, and I just wanted to have some downtime.”
Committed to helping others
Now that she’s back at the hospital, Sacks-Berg said she’s not terribly concerned about catching the virus — or any illness — working there.
“Everyone at the hospital is wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer before you even walk in the door. I feel well protected here,” she said.
Recalling that her son Dan Berg, 32, of Huntington, had asked if she was glad she’d retired before the onset of this health crisis, Sacks-Berg told him, “Actually I’m not.”
“This is something that I thought about, read about, prepared for my entire career,” she said. “Now, here I am, just sitting on the couch, watching TV. I said, ‘I feel like I have a responsibility to go back and help out.’”
Noting that his mother hasn’t gone back to work for economic gain, Dan, said, “She works to make a difference in the lives of the patients and families she sees. She's always the first to jump out of her seat when someone asks if there's a physician on board a flight, and she let us know that she'd volunteer to go back to work weeks before Cuomo publicly asked.”
Dan, a sales engineer at Khoros, continued, “I've always thought of my mother as my hero, her actions during this time just speak to the doctor and person I've always known her to be.”
Saks-Berg’s daughter, Reisa Berg, 30, of Huntington, recalled that in the fall her mother spent two hours on a flight to Chicago assisting a person in medical distress, bringing to mind the countless times she saw her mother volunteer her medical services at ballgames and plays.
A couple years ago, when Reisa, a clinical social worker, was interning at Huntington Hospital’s department of social work, many people — doctors, nurses, orderlies, and food services and custodial staff — gradually came to know who her mother was and would regale her with stories of her mother’s helpfulness.
“It really was so incredible to hear that in every aspect of her life, they see how kind and compassionate she is,” Reisa said. “And, she treats everyone exactly the same, with 100% of her love and attention no matter where she goes.”
Her son Joshua Berg, a Chicago-based IT product manager, said his mother feels she has a moral responsibility to put her expertise to use when it’s really needed.
“We’re all really proud of her and proud of her decision to go back,” said Joshua, 34. “Obviously, there’s some worry — it’s a dangerous disease — but I think for us it’s really outweighed by the fact that we’re proud of the work she’s doing, and we’re proud of the decision she’s made.“
Unsurprised by his wife’s decision to return to work, David Berg said she is driven by her desire to help others.
“That’s something that’s been consistent through her entire life — or at least the life that I’ve shared with her,” said David, 68, a part-time consultant on Long Island water-quality projects. “She’s a great listener, which is really important in all walks of life, but especially in medicine. You have to listen to people and be able to respond in a way that matters to them. Anne is able to engage on matters that are important to others.”
It’s that very engagement and concern for others that led her to go into palliative care in 2011, David said. That’s “where you really have to be a great listener,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, in that field.”
For her part, Sacks-Berg noted that it’s especially gratifying to be back at the hospital with people she’s worked with for nearly three decades.
“I admire these folks that come to work, show the amount of dedication and professionalism that they do. And I’m just happy to be part of it.”
Words to live by
Amid the overabundance of information about the coronavirus, Dr. Anne Sacks-Berg shared the advice that is guiding her.
“We are still in the accelerating phase of this,” she said at the end of March. “We haven’t peaked, and we’re certainly not on the decline.”
“We have to maintain distance,” she continued. “We have to slow the progress of this down because we need to spread the course of this disease out — flatten the curve, is what they’re calling it.”
Symptoms can run the entire spectrum — from none, to mild, to severe.
“A lot of people that I talk to who have this infection, some of them have not been sick at all,” she said, noting that sometimes they get tested because they’ve experienced a daylong headache.
Older men with preexisting illnesses are one segment of the population that seem to be more impacted than any other group, she said.
“There have been young people [who have become ill] with no preexisting illness, but those are outliers,” she said.
As Long Islanders navigate this health crisis, Sacks-Berg recommends that everyone look out for one another: Call (don’t visit!) neighbors, friends and family, and arrange for food deliveries.