As Nashville hospital bed capacity drops to critical level at 5%

Dr. Benjamin Ferrell

My name is Dr. Benjamin Ferrell.  I live in Nashville and am a specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine.  I came to Nashville for my residency in internal medicine in 2008, stayed for specialty training in pulmonary and critical care, and then joined a group of other pulmonologists in private practice in 2015.  

I grew up in a small town in western North Carolina and attended a small liberal arts college. My medical school training was at the Medical College of Virginia where my wife, an OBGyn, also graduated.  Together we are parents of a 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.  I also have two siblings who now live in Nashville, one of whom is also a physician.

Medicine is a calling for me.  I love taking care of people and being part of the healing process.  After college, I completed one year of seminary training, but eventually decided to go into medicine, knowing that being a physician would give me the opportunity to be a hands-on participant in the physical healing of patients. 

Normally I split my time about 50:50 between the ICU and the clinic.  Recently, our hospital volumes have been exceptionally high – driven by higher COVID admissions along with normal ICU admissions.  This has impacted how our group schedules our coverage of the ICU.  For instance, on the weekends, we have now scheduled three ICU physicians instead of two to handle this increased volume.

Caring for COVID patients is physically exhausting, for sure.  But, the emotional toll on us and our ICU staff is profound.   Once a patient reaches the ICU, we know that  patient will  be there a long time; and the patient is quite possibly going to be very sick or die.   The majority of our patients now are coming from outside Davidson County, and they are generally older and sicker.   

Today we know that ICU bed capacity in Nashville has dropped to a critically low level of 5%. This is particularly concerning for our surrounding rural counties who depend on our hospitals for overflow capacity.

This whole experience has been incredibly difficult for patients’ families who can’t be there with them. Many times, we are the last person to talk with them before we put them on a ventilator.  Folks are so sick, and we do everything possible to help them get well, but sometimes that’s not enough.  Losing so many patients is hard, and this pandemic has been traumatic emotionally for many of us, including doctors and nurses and other care provdiers..

In fact, this summer when my senior partner, Dr. Stephen Heyman, became ill, I found myself caring for him during the last week of his ICU stay.  It was a real wake-up call for all of us.  I was often giving updates to his family, and we feared losing one of our own.  Thankfully, after nearly two weeks in the ICU, Dr. Heyman has gradually recovered, and he is back in the clinic working with us.

This July during the summer COVID surge, I worked a week in the COVID-ICU.  I was in the hospital well over a 100 hours that week; my kids barely saw me. It was easily the hardest week of my career so far. We had more critically-ill patients on ventilators than I had ever managed. 

Now that we are seeing a new surge in COVID cases, I worry about what will happen if we run out of ICU beds.  I worry about the impact not only on me and my physician colleagues, but on the nurses, respiratory therapists, and other ancillary staff who put themselves on the front line more than doctors.  Nurses and RT’s go into patient rooms and stay for hours, caring for patients like they are family.  

This is not a disease which will just run its course in the community.  It is deadly, and it will produce a lot of unnecessary death and disability.  We do not have a magic trick to pull out of the hat.  We know what works – wear a mask; stay apart from people as best you can; wash your hands.  And, please listen to health experts – not politicians.

Our Governor, Bill Lee, has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, leaving local county leaders to fight this deadly global pandemic on their own.  It is in his power to take steps now to save lives, especially as we enter flu season and cooler temperatures force us to spend more time indoors.  We know masks work. 

Governor Lee, I plead with you to step up, issue a statewide mask mandate, and protect all of us in Tennessee.