880 In Depth: 'We Learned A Lot' — One Hospital's COVID Story

WCBS 880 Newsroom
June 26, 2020 - 5:00 am

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (WCBS 880) — Health care, specifically community health care, is something we likely take for granted until we really need it and nothing has tested that need as much as these past few months. 

In this week's edition of 880 IN DEPTH, the Morristown Medial Center staff looks back on the past four months living through the COVID-19 pandemic — What was it like during the height of the outbreak? What is it like today? How has it prepared us for tomorrow?  

Morristown Medical Center
Morristown Medical Center

Morristown Medical Center sits on the eastern edge of Interstate 287 in a leafy New Jersey suburban community, just 30 miles to the west of Midtown Manhattan.  

In January, the coronavirus was little more than a tabletop exercise, preparing for something no one ever thought would make its way here.  

By mid-April, they were knee deep and ever grateful for that planning that allowed them to somehow stay just ahead of the crisis.

Trish O'Keefe of Morristown Medical Center
Trish O'Keefe of Morristown Medical Center

Morristown Medical Center is part of the Atlantic Health System. It’s a 600-plus bed facility that handles almost 40,000 admissions in a normal year.

This is not a normal year.

At the peak of COVID-19, Morristown Medical Center housed over 300 COVID patients a day for critical care and COVID treatment.

Today, they’re down to 30 COVID patients and seeing a return to near normal operations. WCBS 880 reporter Peter Haskell visited the hospital earlier this month and walked the floors with hospital president Trish O’Keefe. 

“Thankfully, we had started planning since January on the surge," O'Keefe said.

Morristown Medical Center war room
Morristown Medical Center "war room."

The hospital started focusing on space, supplies, staffing and communication. O’Keefe says the hospital had a very methodical approach that included phases of operation.

If you want an indication of how complex the crisis was, today Morristown Medical Center is in Phase 28, but O’Keefe says things are “headed in a very positive direction.” 

Along the way, the tour took us to the hospital entrance, where they are meeting patients outside with a quick triage to make sure all safety protocols, including temperature checks, are followed. 

O’Keefe speaks with great pride when she talks about the job her staff has done over the past few months.

Jamie Gecz
Jamie Gecz of Morristown Medical Center

For hospital employees, like Pediatric Life Specialist Jamie Gecz, it was challenging and emotional. Gecz normally works in the pediatric ICU with critically ill children, but as the unit was turned into a COVID ward, she started working with critically ill adults. She has many memories of helping the families of sick and dying patients stay connected.

In one case, the wife of one critically ill and intubated patient connected with her husband using video technology and an iPad. She recalls seeing the woman cook dinner while talking to her husband and then sitting down for a meal with the iPad at the table, sharing the meal with her dying husband.

“I am so grateful that we gave them that," she said.

O’Keefe is also thankful for the outpouring of support that came from the community. She talks about the countless meals and recalls the tears that were shed when the Morristown St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee organized a drive-by St. Patrick’s Day Parade, complete with honking horns and bagpipes that allowed patients and staff to connect to the community on an important day in town.

“I am just so proud to live and work in this community,” she told us.

Morristown Medical Center
Morristown Medical Center

As for concerns about a return of COVID in the community or a new surge of hospitalization, O’Keefe says, “We learned a lot from the past several months.” 

She tells us, “We have a game plan now. We feel very, very prepared at this point.”

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