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Northwell CEO says hospital halls were 'like walking through a living morgue'

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling speaks during a

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success on March 2. Credit: Barry Sloan

Michael Dowling recalls walking the halls of two Northwell Health hospitals on Long Island during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in April and being stunned by the eerie silence.

“Usually hospitals are bustling,” Dowling, CEO of the health system, told Newsday in an interview. “Most of the patients were on ventilators. There were no visitors. The only noise was the staff as they shuffled around ... it was like walking through a living morgue. You could hear yourself breathe.”

Dowling recounts the hard-learned lessons, harrowing stories and heroic actions of his staff in the state’s largest health system in a new book titled “Leading Through a Pandemic,” which comes out Aug. 25.

He penned the book with Charles Kenney, Northwell’s chief journalist, during rare weekend breaks in the spring.

“I was in awe of the compassion, the caring, the dedication of the staff,” Dowling said. “You learn something as you go through this. You learn something about yourself and you learn something about your organization.”

Doctors, nurses and staff at Northwell hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care centers and other locations cared for more than 70,000 COVID-19 patients between early March and mid-July. Northwell has 19 hospitals in New York, including 11 on Long Island.

At the peak of the pandemic, there were 715 coronavirus patients at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, making the hospital one of the largest COVID-19 specialty facilities in the country, Dowling writes.

With supplies, such as ventilators and personal protective equipment in high demand, Northwell staff used 3D printers to create nasal swabs for COVID-19 diagnostic tests. BiPAP machines used to treat people with sleep apnea were converted into ventilators with the help of plastic, T-piece adapters also produced on 3D printers.

Perhaps most shocking is the revelation that staffers purchased garden hoses to attach to ventilators that had been sent by the state, via the federal government, without vital parts needed to make them work, according to the book.

“We did have to go to Home Depot,” Dowling said. “What this did on the other hand was it showed amazing innovation and creativity. When you are in a circumstance like this, you have to be creative. You can’t sit around saying let me analyze it. Let me do a business plan. You’ve got to do it and you’ve got to do it overnight.”

The book details how staffers at Forest Hills Hospital were “pushed to the brink.” Over one 24-hour period in March, COVID-19 was responsible for the deaths of 17 people at the Queens hospital. One particularly heart-wrenching story recounts how a mother died from COVID-19 after delivering her baby. Her husband also died, leaving the newborn an orphan.

It also examines at length how the health system prepared its facilities for a crisis but was still scrambling to purchase additional personal protective equipment once regular suppliers based in Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the virus — could not deliver.

“We didn’t know how long the pandemic would last,” Dowling said. “No matter how many supplies you’ve got and how big your inventory is, you are still thinking you have two or three weeks' worth of supplies, but what happens if I have to go seven weeks?”

The key is having a supply chain within the United States and making sure the state and federal governments have a stockpile of vital equipment, Dowling writes.

The real heroes of the book, Dowling said, are the staff members who worked long hours delivering medical care while trying their best to also comfort frightened, critically ill patients.

Elisa Vicari, a social worker in the ICU at North Shore, writes about how staffers helped patients FaceTime with relatives who could not visit because of the pandemic, learning about favorite songs, nicknames and beloved pets.

“They’ve sent pictures so we can build collages and fill their rooms with love,” Vicari writes. “I feel like I’ve become part of these families just by holding the screen for them.”