Emergency medicine faculty named ‘Heroes of the Pandemic’

Source: Quarterly magazine, Vol 24, Iss 3

In the latest issue of Quarterly, the official magazine of the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, two emergency medicine faculty were recognized for their heroic efforts in education, scientific investigation, patient care, public health and health equity throughout the pandemic.

The efforts of Dr. Azita Hamedani and Dr. Jeffrey Pothof extend throughout Dane County, the state and the nation.

While the COVID-19 pandemic altered professional and personal lives for nearly everyone, people who work in health care, medical research and academic medicine have front-row seats. They have been called upon to adapt quickly to changing situations and community needs, while balancing the same uncertainties faced by the rest of society.

Quarterly called on UW SMPH faculty members to share their experiences related to the novel coronavirus and its ramifications on individuals, families and communities:

Azita G. Hamedani, MD, MPH, MBA

Hamedani is the founding chair of the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

How did the pandemic change your roles and responsibilities?

It necessitated a more cohesive and holistic approach to the clinical services we collectively provide. We had to make sure our faculty members were doing okay but also ask them to expand their scope.

What did you do in response to the pandemic?

I was asked to chair the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, sanctioned by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to provide advice related to medical ethics and recommend policy for equitable and fair delivery of medical services. It was an honor to lead this group. Even when they disagreed, the members truly cared about advancing the best interests of Wisconsin residents.

What’s one experience from the pandemic that stands out to you?

In a crisis, it is important to manage the emotions and storyline around the situation. You need to project confidence in a favorable future and ensure that serious work is getting done, but also build community so people feel they are in it together. In meetings I led, I made sure to ask an unexpected personal question that would result in some laughter. It’s hard to be too upset with someone, take things too personally or not care about another person’s viewpoint when you’ve laughed together. In a diverse stakeholder committee, that’s especially important.

What is the most important thing the pandemic taught you?

Public health infrastructure and health literacy are areas in which we should invest so communication in times of public health crises can be more effective. We should learn from this experience and invest in better systems for the future.

Jeffrey Pothof, MD

Pothof is an associate professor of emergency medicine and chief quality officer for UW Health.

How did the pandemic change your roles and responsibilities?

I was part of a team asked to assess our pandemic readiness and determine what we needed to do to stay safe while continuing to provide remarkable care to our patients at UW Health. Most of 2020 consisted of rotating through the Hospital Incident Command Center as one of the medical branch officers. We’d review the metrics on pandemic trends to determine how we needed to respond. We worked with UW-Madison to manufacture our own hand sanitizer and face shields when we knew the supply chain would leave us short. Every day was filled with issues that needed to be solved with the speed and flexibility we were not accustomed to, but time after time, everyone at UW Health and the SMPH stepped up and exceeded everyone’s expectations.

What did you do in response to the pandemic?

In addition to my work within UW Health, I served on the Waunakee School District’s Medical Advisory Committee to help create a safe environment for children. I also was one of the first people in the United States to participate in the AstraZeneca phase 3 vaccine trial. Our research teams had worked tirelessly to secure UW Health as an enrollment site for that clinical trial.

How were you responsible for communicating about the pandemic?

Early on, many of us at the SMPH and UW Health felt strongly that our role in the pandemic included informing and educating our community and beyond about how to keep themselves and their families safe. This began small with a handful of media interviews, but it grew into more than 3,000 media stories with more than 1.5 billion views.

What’s one memory that stands out to you?

I’ll never forget the Sunday morning when our team met and made the incredibly difficult decision to postpone all non-emergent procedures at UW Health. This had never been done before, and despite the enormous financial cost to the organization, we made that decision because it was necessary to keep our staff and patients safe in that uncertain time.