Two years ago, Dr. Moira Sinnott ’00 was filling cavities in children’s teeth, challenged by squirming, anxious toddlers.
Today she is on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, an anesthesiology resident in a New York City hospital that, like many, found itself under-equipped to handle the pandemic—or to protect medical personnel, like Moira, who deal directly with COVID patients.
In 2012, Moira graduated from dental school and for more than seven years practiced pediatric dentistry. After seeing how anesthesia helped her patients, she decided to study dental anesthesiology.
Dental anesthesiologists, like medical anesthesiologists, do their residencies in a hospital. When Moira was assigned to St. Barnabas Hospital
in the Bronx, she expected to sedate and intubate patients, but she had no idea that she would be battling a pandemic and, like many other medical personnel, doing so without sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Before the current crisis hit New York, Moira worked on all kinds of general surgeries, from appendectomies to gunshot wounds. Now non-COVID procedures are rare, and intubating patients—which she does frequently—puts her at high risk of infection because intubation spreads virus droplets.
Supplies of the most protective masks, the N-95s, have been low at St. Barnabas. “Everything has dwindled to the point where we’re reusing things we never would have reused before,” she said. “Yesterday I wore an N-95 mask with another mask on top of it, with a face shield that I’ve wiped off.” Until recently, Moira had two N-95 masks and rotated them; now she has four. Before the pandemic, the masks typically would be discarded after each use.
“I read online that you can put it in the oven,” Moira said, musing on how to disinfect a mask properly for reuse. “But I don’t want to bring COVID to my house.” She rotates her protective gowns as well, and has three, including one she can wipe off. Some of her colleagues have purchased heavier, protective coveralls on their own.
Moira does not blame the hospital for even a second. "These are unprecedented times. I think the hospital is really trying hard to find solutions for us. They’re trying to provide great care to patients who really need it," she said. "We’re taking in some of the neediest patients." Patients at St. Barnabas, a 422-bed hospital, tend to be sicker and have poorer outcomes than patients at many other hospitals, Moira said. Ninety percent of its patients are on Medicaid or Medicare. To cope with the pandemic, much of the hospital has become an ICU, with even waiting areas adapted for patient care.
When word began to spread about the dire situation Moira faced at St. Barnabas, more than forty of her formmates, and some formmates of her sister Julia's ’04, donated to the hospital to help provide Moira and her colleagues with more adequate PPE. Justin Chang '04 and some of her Wellesley and Boston University dental school classmates have donated PPE directly. In addition, Groton’s Theater Department, which is making face shields for medical workers, sent shields to the hospital.
"I'm so grateful for the support I've received from other Grotonians," Moira said. "Whether it's a message on Facebook or an email or a donation, hearing from people makes me feel like I'm part of a bigger community. It makes a huge difference."
Moira suspects she already had COVID-19, when she was out sick for ten days, even though her test was negative. Many of her coworkers tested positive.
Before COVID hit New York, Moira would get to work at 6:30 a.m. on a typical day, break for lunch, and return home between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Today, she still gets in at 6:30 a.m. but often works a twenty-four-hour shift. Much of her day is spent ensuring that patients on ventilators are properly sedated. “If someone’s not sedated, they will often extubate themselves,” she said.
Moira says she “rolls with the punches” yet can't avoid the emotional burden and heartbreak that she faces daily. “It absolutely affects me that patients I’m taking care of are having to face this alone, without their families by their sides to support them. And a lot of them were not sick before,” she said. “They are beloved members of the community."