While the world remains indoors to combat the spread of COVID-19, some are fighting valiantly on the front lines, risking their lives every day to help those battling for their own. As Forrest Martin (21C) and Alex Fukunaga (21C) self-quarantine and attend online classes from home, their fathers, Emory Professor of Medicine and pulmonologist Dr. Greg Martin and gastroenterologist Dr. Karl Fukunaga, are working around the clock to alleviate the deluge of patients in their respective hospitals.

Though Martin and Fukunaga are based on opposite sides of the country, in Atlanta, Georgia and Torrance, California, respectively, the two doctors have both  extended beyond their specialized practice to care for COVID-19 patients in emergency rooms. 

A 1994 Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) School of Medicine graduate, Martin has now practiced pulmonology at Emory’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine for 20 years. Martin said he chose to pursue medicine because the field encapsulated his love for science and the mechanics of the human body. He splits his time between his clinical duties at the Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta and teaching at Emory School of Medicine.

In the face of this pandemic, however, Martin’s duties have transformed from teaching and clinical practice to ensuring the immediate safety of the country’s residents and medical personnel. Martin said that, within the medical field, planning is crucial — especially during unpredictable circumstances —  as hospitals around Atlanta prepare for a potential surge in patients. 

“We knew the coronavirus was coming, but the hard part is knowing where the next cluster is going to occur,” Martin said. “We are certainly seeing cases here, so a lot of the work over the last three to four weeks was developing policy to ensure that we could handle [an influx] of patients.”

Martin said that the lack of predictability is unnerving for all healthcare staff in the Emory hospital network, but especially for those on the frontlines who spend most of their time in direct contact with patients.

“We don’t always know … whether someone’s going to have the disease or not,” Martin said. “The nurses who spend a lot of their days at the bedside of patients in the hospital or the clinic … are the ones that have taken a lot of the brunt of the anxiety.” 

Fukunaga, a University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine graduate, shares Martin’s concerns about the pandemic’s future. Fukunaga is a self-described “gastroenterologist documenting medicine in the time of COVID-19,” who has been sharing his experiences on his Instagram account since March 21. The account includes pictures of him and his coworkers in action, as well as advice and updates on the pandemic.

Karl Fukunaga documents his hospital’s fight against the novel coronavirus on his Instagram account./Courtesy of Karl Fukunaga’s Instagram

On his account, Fukunaga documents the exacting measures that hospital personnel take every day, using the platform to consistently urge the public to practice social distancing. In particular, he has been vocal about the national issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, and Fukunaga’s recent update highlights an initiative by Duke University to sanitize and reuse masks. 

“The situation has gotten worse by the day, some of the hospitals have started to ration facemasks,” Fukunaga said. “It’s really gross when you use a facemask all day and you’ve been in a long procedure all day.”

Fukunaga noted that the pandemic has actually resulted in some slow workdays as elective surgeries are canceled. Physicians have transitioned to telemedicine, which uses telecommunication to provide care remotely.

Regarding telemedicine, Fukunaga said, “We weren’t really sure how to do [it at first] but now we’ve been forced to [transition].”

The stress placed on healthcare workers is not forgotten when they leave the workplace, as their children also share their struggles. Fukunaga’s son, Alex Fukunaga, said that the stress of adjusting to online classes and a new mode of life is compounded by having medical workers in the family.

“It’s definitely tough when my dad comes home — he has his whole routine and he sort of isolates himself,” Alex Fukunaga said. “I haven’t had much contact with my dad lately, when we eat dinner, we’ll Facetime him but I miss that interaction.”

However, instead of deterring Alex Fukunaga’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, this difficult situation has only spurred his ambition.

“It just reminded me that this can happen at any given time as a doctor, anywhere in the world and that you just have to be ready,” Alex Fukunaga said. “It is your duty to provide healthcare for everybody at the end of the day.”

Though uncertain of when the situation will return to normal, Martin and Fukunaga both emphasized the importance of high morale, teamwork and camaraderie as healthcare professionals work together in the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

Fukunaga stressed that healthcare staffers are “just trying their best” in this battle against a rapidly spreading, unfamiliar disease.