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Coronavirus crisis prompts Barry University to graduate medical students early

Given the dire need for medical staff in the face of the ongoing pandemic, Barry University decided to allow 17 students to graduate early and join the fight against the novel coronavirus at stretched-thin hospitals across the nation, weeks sooner than anticipated.

The private Catholic university in Miami Shores joined a list of higher education institutions like New York University and Columbia, which announced this week similar measures to help health professionals care for COVID-19 patients — some under extraordinary conditions.

“In my 35 years as a nurse, nurse anesthetist and an administrator, I have never witnessed anything like this,” said Dr. John McFadden, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Barry. “I’m really proud of my healthcare colleagues, but I’m also very concerned we don’t have enough resources to manage this.”

The entire senior class of Barry University’s Cardiovascular Perfusion Program, one of about 12 of its kind in the country and the only one in Florida, will now graduate on April 11, instead of May 9.

Perfusionists mainly operate the cardiopulmonary bypass machine, know as heart–lung machine, during cardiac surgery and other surgeries. But they can also be crucial outside of the operating room, by running the machine for people who might have heart failure and are waiting for transplants, and premature infants who need special attention.

When it comes to the crisis of COVID-19, which manifests with symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing, perfusionists can help patients who can no longer breathe on their own. With the machine, they can extract a person’s blood, oxygenate it and bypass it back in, effectively letting patients’ hearts rest for a while and improving their overall well-being.

Not all COVID-19 patients present severe symptoms that would require hospitalization, and not all patients with severe symptoms require the machines used by perfusionists.

However, the U.S. currently has about 103,000 patients and only about 4,000 perfusionists, according to a 2019 report from the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion. Florida has reported about 3,100 cases so far, and it has about 300 perfusionists. So it’s not a surprise Barry received calls from their clinical partners asking for help, McFadden said.

Barry’s medical students, who completed four years of undergraduate education before applying to the perfusion program, already finished a year’s worth of coursework and another year of clinical rotations.

They’ve been working at local hospitals like Jackson Memorial in Miami, Memorial Regional in Hollywood and Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, as well as others across the U.S., including Loma Linda University Medical Center in California and Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital in Texas.

“We’ve made sure they met or exceeded the requirements,” McFadden said. “They’re more than ready and willing and able.”

Anticipating a need

McFadden said he started considering graduating students early in mid-February when the respiratory illness cases ramped up in China and Italy. He’s since been meeting every other night with fellow college administrators in Florida and other experts to share information and discuss how they can best address the crisis.

Other universities in Florida are having ongoing conversations to speed graduations for other programs as well, but they have multiple hoops to jump through first, McFadden said, including the corresponding accreditation bodies and the Department of Education. To the best of his knowledge, McFadden said, he believes Barry is the first to accomplish it.

The urgency to do so intensified last week, when hospitals in the U.S. sent students home, as the number of patients spiked and they realized they had a limited amount of protective equipment. Barry’s perfusionists were told they needed to wait until they graduated to return.

One of those students, 45-year-old Andy Kemp, said it was frustrating to take a step back.

He’s been working at Naples Community Hospital in Collier County, an area that has registered about 80 COVID-19 cases, according to the Florida Department of Health, and is eager to assist the other three perfusionists in the hospital.

“I’m scared, but the field needs me,” he said, “I’m not one to stand on the sideline and watch. I want to be on a field and contribute, even if that means taking some risk.”

This story was originally published March 28, 2020 6:00 AM.

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