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School of Medicine Columbia

Alumna helps battle COVID-19 in New York City

When Ellen Rhame Pottharst, M.D., moved her family to New York, New York, in April 2019, she had no idea that one short year later she would find herself working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. An anesthesiologist by training, Pottharst now finds herself working in critical care, providing care to patients infected with the novel coronavirus at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

Pottharst graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia in 2006 after earning her bachelor’s degree in biology from Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Following an intern year of residency in internal medicine at Palmetto Health Richland, now Prisma Health Richland, and another three years of residency in anesthesiology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, Pottharst completed her fellowship in pain management at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, part of the Harvard Medical School.

She returned to South Carolina to begin her practice in interventional pain management in 2013 establishing South Carolina Pain Specialists, part of Roper St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, S.C. While in Charleston, she met her husband.

Their careers took them to San Francisco to work for Kaiser Permanente in 2016, and last year, they relocated through her husband’s job to New York City.

“I wanted to get back into anesthesiology,” she says, “and this position presented itself as the right opportunity,” she says.

Pottharst also wanted to return to a role in academia. “Taking a position at an academic center would provide me the chance to teach while working in ambulatory surgery,” Pottharst says.

It turns out the Bronx would become one of the ‘hot spots’ for COVID-19. As the health crisis unfolded, the Washington Post described the Bronx as ‘New York City’s coronavirus capital,’ with more coronavirus cases per capita than any other borough in the city.

As it has for everyone, the pandemic pushed Pottharst to adapt to a much different way of working within her hospital. Her role working as an anesthesiologist in elective surgeries came to a halt once most such surgeries were cancelled.

“We needed all staff, all hands-on-deck,” she says. “Operating rooms weren’t being used and we were short on critical care beds, so ORs were converted into ICUs. Initially, we were taking a portion of the hospital for COVID patients but as the volumes ramped up, the entire hospital was providing care to COVID patients except for a small area.”

Pottharst has spent a great deal of time over the past two months transitioning her skills from anesthesiology to include critical care, studying through the COVID Activated Emergency Scaling of Anesthesiology Responsibilities (CAESAR) project, a collaborative learning library from the American Society of Anesthesiologists along with the Society of Critical Care Anesthesiologists (SOCCA), the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) and the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF).
She harkens back to her first days of critical care training at then Palmetto Health Richland, now part of Prisma Health Midlands. 

"I feel I had really strong critical care training in the ICU at Richland,” she says. “The level of teaching was excellent and when I study now, I’m refreshing myself as opposed to learning things for the first time.”

Pottharst also has to balance her role as a physician working with COVID-infected patients with that of her role as a wife and mother to two young children. She keeps a supply of paper bags in the trunk of her car because she does not want to bring anything home that cannot be thrown away or washed immediately.

“I keep a pair of shoes to wear to drive to and from work, and as soon as I get home, my husband leaves bags, disinfecting wipes and a trash bag,” she says. “We don’t have the luxury of a garage, so I change in the stairwell. All the things I need for work I keep in separate bags.”

Pottharst says it is still difficult to wrap her head around what is happening.

“We try to keep morale up, but so many are dying,” she says. “That’s something I have never seen on a day-to-day basis. Processing that will go on for a long time and we’ll never forget. It is certainly overwhelming, but I always tell everyone it could be worse. I could be a patient or one of the family members who can’t see their loved ones who are spending weeks in the ICU. When you talk to them, it is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Pottharst feels her faith has helped her deal with the day-to-day stress of the working in the pandemic. She is also grateful for small gestures in show of support for health care workers.

“You can hear people cheering when we leave the hospital at 7 p.m.,” she says, “and I have had people reach out – neighbors dropping off banana bread, family members and friends donating food to health care workers. Someone out there cares.”

When COVID-19 patients are discharged from Montefiore, the song ‘Empire State of Mind’ is played throughout the hospital to celebrate. She explains that keeping morale up has been important for everyone.

“It’s not easy but this has been my biggest opportunity to serve and have an impact in my entire career.”

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