Bill talks with member Dr. Jeff Snell, who works in the intensive care unit at Rush, about what is has been like caring for COVID-19 patients.

R. Jeffrey Snell, MD

Bill: Hi friends, my name is Bill Evertsberg and I’m one of the ministers at Kenilworth Union Church, and this is Doogie, my assistant minister.

I’ve never served a church with so many stained-glass windows. I love the stained-glass windows in all our various rooms, and it’ll be clear in a minute why I’ve positioned us in front of this window. It says “Mercy” at the top; famous doctors are in this window, or famous healers, I guess I should say.  Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Sir David Livingstone—and so it will be clear in a moment why we’re sitting here.

This is Jeff Snell. Jeff, where are you from, and tell us how long you’ve been a member at Kenilworth Union? How did you find the church?

Jeff: I’m from the area. I was born in Evanston and then my family moved to Kenilworth when I was in second grade and we became members of the church at that time, and I’ve been involved in the church ever since and stayed in the area ever since. I went to New Trier and I went to Northwestern and I went to medical school at Rush, where I’ve worked ever since I graduated. I did all my training at Rush and I’ve been there on the faculty ever since.

My wife Chris and I were married in the church, and both our children Kim and Jeff were baptized here. Kim and her husband Scott got married here, they even got engaged here on Christmas Eve because Scotty knew how important the church was to everybody, and their daughter Amy got baptized here and they have another one on the way. My son Jeff is also a member of the church and it’s been very important to our lives.

Bill: Your family is much beloved by the congregation. Thanks for your faithfulness in everything you do for the church. So what specialty do you practice at Rush? You teach and practice medicine at Rush.

Jeff: I’m a professor there and I’m an interventional cardiologist, so I fix blocked arteries, but I also train and am board-certified in critical care medicine, so my job has been a combination of doing procedures, being in charge of an intensive care unit—

Bill: You’re in charge!

Jeff:—in a heart intensive care unit, and also I’ve been there for a long time so I have a big practice there.

Bill: So how has your life changed since the pandemic fell upon us almost a year ago?

Jeff: Yeah, it’s almost exactly a year ago, and as you may know, Rush was kind of in the center of the response to COVID, partly based on the hospital design which was very oriented around intensive care units, so at baseline we have four intensive care units, one of which is our heart intensive care unit; there’s a neurology one; there’s a medical one; and a surgical one.

When the pandemic hit last March, it got very busy all very quickly with COVID patients, and all four of our intensive care units stopped doing what they were previously doing and became completely filled with sick COVID patients. We even opened up two additional intensive care units, so in March, April, and May we had six intensive care units at the peak of this filled with sick COVID patients.

Bill: How many beds is that total?

Jeff: About close to 200 patients. And because we were kind of positioned for this, in addition to patients who came through Rush, we were taking transfers of sick COVID patients from many community hospitals in the area. My job shifted, and the other one of the things about the pandemic that you may have heard of is everything else—elective procedures, people’s routine appointments—all went away for a while and for several months there I was pretty much exclusively doing the care of very sick COVID patients in intensive care units, and then in the summer it started to slowly change and get better, and the patient census of COVID patients started to decrease and now we have a steady but smaller number of COVID patients in the medical intensive care unit. Our heart intensive care unit is pretty much back to taking care of heart disease patients with an occasional heart patient that also has COVID.

Bill: Are you back to doing heart things more or are you still caring for of COVID people?

Jeff: No, all of the general healthcare has pretty much slowly returned to normal. I would say it’s still 80% of what it was pre-pandemic, which has actually been an issue for medical centers financially, also, but more importantly we’ve been trying to convince patients that they need to get back and do their healthcare that they have not been able to do for a year because everybody’s worried that a lot of healthcare has been neglected for a year, and that may cause other problems in the not-so-distant future.

We’re back to seeing outpatients just like we always have with all of the usual precautions, and of course most of the medical personnel have been vaccinated by this point, and we’re busily encouraging patients to get vaccinated and everybody else so life can someday get back to normal.

Bill: From a lay person’s point of view, through the media, it looks as if caring for in your case hundreds of COVID patients during this time was intense and challenging. Did you experience that kind of intensity, sadness, depression?

Jeff: Pretty much all of the above at various points. At the beginning it was particularly difficult and scary. We didn’t know very much about this disease and it was not like other diseases. It didn’t follow some of the usual rules and patients got very sick very quickly and it didn’t always follow—you would think maybe older patients with a lot of other illnesses would be more likely to get the most sick, and sometimes that happened, but it wouldn’t be unusual that a young otherwise healthy person would get extremely sick and pass away. You add on top of that all of the precautions that needed to be taken where families couldn’t visit and so you have a dying loved one and you can maybe communicate via FaceTime on telephone or something.

Bill: Did you do some of that?

Jeff: Yeah, I mean everybody did that, but it was still very difficult for families and you know it wasn’t difficult for the doctors. I would say the nurses on the frontline in the intensive care units, the respiratory therapists, some of the other people who were just working constantly at the bedside, I mean that was extremely stressful as well, and they did a heroic job.

Bill: Are they okay?

Jeff: Yeah, I think. There was a lot of consequences of this. Some people decided that enough was enough and retired or went to other things, but I think that Rush was very good at trying to support the personnel that were taking care of them, and I think everybody’s pretty proud of the work we did as well.

Bill: Yeah, great. Well Jeff, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was so the congregation could hear from somebody on the front line, but also we need to thank you and your colleagues for being on the front line and getting Chicagoland through this. I’m glad your life is a little bit new normal, I guess you would say.

Jeff: It’s good to be in the church again.

Bill: Yes! So here we are with two great doctors, Albert Schweitzer and Jeffrey Snell. God bless you, Jeff, as you go back to Rush, and God bless you all.

Jeff: Thanks, Bill.