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How retired physicians are stepping up to help North Bay hospitals battle the pandemic

Retired physicians and nursing students are among the health care professionals in the North Bay eager to join the fight to beat the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I expected this to happen and had already thrown my name in the hat with the Sonoma County Department of Public Health,” said Dr. Dennis Pocekay, who retired 10 years ago after nearly 30 years working for Kaiser Permanente at its facilities in San Rafael, Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

Pocekay, 70, has joined Sonoma County’s coronavirus response efforts, working helpline shifts.

“I get questions from people and doctors about issues with their exposure or fear of coronavirus,” Pocekay said. “I also get a lot of calls from businesses and workers having to do with what’s (considered) essential, whether or not they should be working, or what kind of protection they should use.”

In addition, Pocekay, who resides in Petaluma, has attended training for the California Medical Association’s (CMA) Care 4 Caregivers program, which will offer virtual emotional and professional support to health care workers serving patients during the COVID-19 crisis.

He also applied to volunteer for the California Health Corps, a call-to-action initiative Gov. Gavin Newsom announced March 30, seeking more health care workers. As of April 6, nearly 82,000 people had applied to join the program, Newsom said that day.

Pocekay said he doubts he’ll be called to treat patients, both because of his age and the number of years it has been since he practiced medicine full time.

“I’m a little jealous that I can’t go on the front lines because I think it’s important,” he said.

Dr. Tim Gieseke, 69, temporarily came out of retirement before Newsom made a public call for more health care assistance.

“I came out of retirement because Spring Lake Village, where I was medical director for 33 years, needed help with COVID-19 disaster-preparedness, and the CMA had made an appeal for retired physicians to either reenter the marketplace for pay or to do so pro bono,” said Gieseke. Spring Lake Village is a retirement and assisted living community in Santa Rosa.

He chose to volunteer, for a couple of reasons.

“I am still in good health and only recently retired, and believe it’s a physician’s duty and calling to serve the public in emergencies, even at their own personal risk,” said Grieske, who lives in Santa Rosa. “In addition, I have volunteered on international medical projects for years, so I am very familiar with under-resourced and non-ideal practice situations.”

While there presently are no known cases of COVID-19 at Spring Lake Village, Gieseke anticipates that could change, and he’s ready if it does.

After the CMA made its appeal for more physicians to come back to the workforce, Gieseke said he contacted Chad Krillich, chief medical officer at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, to let him know he is available for work. He did the same with Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Sutter Health’s Novato Community Hospital.

“I have now completed the reactivation of privileges for emergency hospitalist services, if that is needed,” Gieseke said. He is currently serving as a lead physician assisting the Sonoma County Public Health Division, and is involved in developing community-based strategies for mitigating the pandemic.

“If I do need to go back to direct patient care, I suspect my best service will be in an alternate care site used by all hospitals in the community for Skilled Nursing Facility-level COVID patients,” he said. “That would be the best use of my medical director and internal medicine/geriatric skills.”

The statewide call for more health care workers to help during the COVID-19 crisis also got the attention of Touro University California and Dominican University of California, both of which offer nursing programs.

When Newsom announced the California Health Corps initiative on March 30, Dr. Sarah Sweitzer, provost at Touro University, said a number of nursing students expressed interest. Touro University is a private graduate school in Vallejo with about 1,500 students.

Sweitzer noted she hadn’t heard about Newsom’s initiative until the Monday it was announced.

“What we learned on Tuesday morning is that they had 20,000 people apply in the first 12 hours of launching it,” she said. That number would more than quadruple a week later.

Touro’s nursing students are licensed registered nurses with work experience. They come to the university to pursue a master’s degree, doctorate program for nursing practice, or to become a family nurse practitioner.

Even though Touro’s nursing students are interested in learning more about the California Health Corps, Sweitzer said the process isn’t simple, for working RNs or those studying for their initial nursing licensure.

“Right now, nursing students who are in those initial licensure programs are having trouble getting their clinical hours completed because many hospitals have asked students to leave because they don’t have enough PPE to cover their own staff, much less students,” Sweitzer said.

For now anyway, Touro’s graduate students are continuing onward with their studies, which, like other colleges, has transitioned to online learning during the pandemic.

Dominican University is another college that moved its classes to a remote learning environment, said Ruth Ramsey, dean, School of Health and Natural Sciences.

Dominican has about 400 nursing students enrolled in its four-year nursing program, she said, adding that many were excited to learn about potential opportunities with the California Health Corps program.

“I know that prior to (Newsom’s announcement), we did have nursing students asking what options were available and being very vocal in the press about their desire to receive a provisional license or have some opportunity to get out in clinical practice as quickly as possible,” Ramsey said. “So we do anticipate that at least some of our students will be doing this.”

Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, before it was declared a pandemic, Dominican still had nursing students at various clinical sites, but they began shutting down over a two-week period, she said.

In the current pandemic environment, with so much work to be done, Ramsey said she’s glad the governor helped create the California Health Corps.

“We stand ready to support our students however we can to ensure their success and that they have the opportunity to help contribute to the overwhelming needs of our health care systems right now,” she said.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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