Passionate communicator. Pulmonologist. ICU doctor.
Pulmonologist and Critical Care Specialist Dr. Stephanie Coates has always been passionate about education and communication. She even had whiteboards installed in the pulmonology exam rooms at Vancouver Clinic so she could more easily teach patients about their conditions. Her ability to help individuals and their families understand medical complexities is one of the many reasons they appreciate her. Now in the era of COVID-19, Dr. Coates’s emphasis on clear communication is particularly vital.
On duty in the ICU
Dr. Coates spends a week out of every month seeing COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. The virus is so contagious that ICU patients aren’t allowed to have visitors. Where families used to be able to hold and touch their loved ones and speak to them, they now depend entirely on doctors and staff for updates.
“I’m their eyes and ears and have to paint a picture for them about what’s going on,” Dr. Coates says. “I need to explain the little details that they would normally see for themselves.”
Not only do families miss information by not being at the bedside, they must make sense of what it’s like to be in an intensive care unit—a completely different environment—from afar.
Family video calls
To ease the situation for patients and worried families, Dr. Coates sets up video conference calls. She starts by asking people what they know, so she can hear what information they’ve internalized and how they’re thinking about it. Then she takes the time to talk about the virus, the treatments and their pros and cons, and then how the care for their loved one is being handled.
“I do my best to make these as valuable, meaningful, and educational as possible,” she says.
She also works with the spiritual care department at the hospital, which reaches out to families to learn more about patients and see what they can do to make them more comfortable. For example, a musician might love to hear classical music during the day, while a painter might want art or photographs in the room. That same team will sometimes do quick hospital room video chats so families can give their love to a mom, dad, brother, or sister.
Caring for the physical and emotional needs of a patient and keeping families appraised of what’s happening is a time-intensive endeavor, but something Dr. Coates has a heart for.
Caution for the holidays
Yet while Dr. Coates is proud to care for those who are ill and to be a source of knowledge, she also sees the severity of COVID-19 firsthand and the anguish it can cause families. She is particularly concerned about the upcoming holidays and advises people to not travel and to avoid getting together in person.
She notes that COVID-19 cases rose after people gathered for Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day, even though those celebrations likely took place outdoors. The upcoming holidays are generally celebrated indoors, raising transmission risk. Her advice? Show the people you love just how much you love and miss them by celebrating at a distance.
“It’s especially important now that we continue to take this seriously and not let our fatigue dissolve our commitment to keeping the people we love most safe” she says. “Just focus on that, if that’s what it takes to keep you at home. Think about the people you love.”