Physician leans on experience in COVID-19 fight

May 12th, 2020

Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Steinbruner is no stranger to tough spots.

Dr. David Steinbruner. Photo courtesy of Jason Fleming.

He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Army emergency medicine physician and was co-medical director of American Medical Response and the Colorado Springs Fire Department. He continues to work as an emergency physician in our region’s only Level 1 Trauma Center.

During the past several weeks, he led UCHealth Memorial Hospital’s COVID-19 medical response in addition to working closely with the El Paso County Public Health Department and local media outlets to ensure accurate, timely information.

He took a break to answer three questions about his experiences in his own words.

Q:  What prepared you to help lead Memorial Hospital’s response to COVID-19?
A:  I am not sure anyone can say they were really prepared to deal with a pandemic like COVID-19. It is such an unusual situation and something no one has ever faced on such an extensive scale. I think my experience as a military physician on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan gave me a set of skills and exposed me to previous challenges that helped in responding to this crisis. The military training also gave me a respect for, and understanding of, incident command and the importance of clear communication up and down the line.

My first deployment was to Iraq from 2005 through 2006 as an emergency physician working with the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. This was a time in the war when the conflict was quite intense and the numbers of severely injured large.  I learned early on to check my ego at the door and focus on achieving the mission as well as the critical importance of team dynamics and clear communication. I learned over the course of that year what interpersonal skills are critical to being successful and being able to sustain unit cohesion during a long campaign. Being away from my family and living in a combat zone also gave me perspective about what in life is most important.

Recognizing the value of your team members and working to reassure them and support them as they work with you toward a common goal is a fundamental aspect of leadership. It is never about you, but about what you can do to support those you have the privilege to lead. No one can be successful during a time like this without listening to what the people doing the work need, and working to get them the resources to be successful.

Q:  What in the past six weeks has surprised you?
A:   I am not really surprised by it, but I am quite impressed to see the way the entire health care team adjusted to such extraordinary circumstances. I always knew I worked with remarkable people, but this rapidly evolving crisis showed how dedicated to the care and safety of our community the UCHealth family is.

They have faced every challenge with grace and patience, whether it be loss of work and income, long shifts in PPE, new tasks asked of them or the flexibility to stay home or come in to work at a moment’s notice. Where much of the community was asked to stay home and focus on avoiding exposure to this virus, our colleagues and co-workers were asked to come in and take care of the very people most at risk. This is not an easy thing to do with one’s sense of humor intact and continued positive attitude. But in every corner of each hospital and clinic, people greet each other with a smile and kind words of encouragement. This fills me with a great sense of pride and the confidence that no matter what we face in the coming months, we shall be up to the challenge.

So, too, have I been impressed with the outpouring of support from the Colorado Springs, El Paso and Teller county communities. They have really risen to the challenge and heard what we recommended and acted on it. I think that it is no accident that we have been able to slow the spread of this contagion and kept our ICU’s available and our resources intact. It means a great deal to all of the front line staff and those who support them to see this heart-felt outpouring of love and appreciation from the community. From donations of food, PPE, time, supplies and military support including multiple flyovers, I cannot thank our community enough for giving us all of the support that we could possibly want. It makes it a lot easier to come to work, don the PPE and face anything that comes through the front door knowing that what we do really matters to those we serve.

Q:  Why is safe to return to the hospital for a medically necessary procedure?
A:  Keeping our patients safe from any infection is one of the primary goals of any hospital. Even though there are COVID-19 patients in our hospitals, they are tested and identified on arrival and are kept in isolation from our other patients. Because of our enhanced precautions, we are able to keep those patients, and the staff who care for them, safe and isolated.

As we catch up on the surgeries and procedures that had been delayed, we are screening and testing every patient who needs it prior to their procedure. We have several mechanisms in place to maintain social distancing within our facilities and limit the number of people that you come in contact with during your visit. This is why we have visitor restrictions, have our patients and visitors wear masks when possible, and have strict policies about when and how to wear PPE. It is far more likely you will be inadvertently exposed to the COVID-19 virus while out and about in the community than in our hospital. This is why we encourage people throughout the region to continue to wear masks when not able to physically distance, continue to use good hand washing etiquette and to stay home when showing signs of illness. We are well aware COVID-19 is going to be around for some time and we have adapted our operations to adjust for this.

About the author

Tom Hutton is a veteran communications professional who enjoys making complex subjects relatable to people from all walks of life. Prior to joining UCHealth in 2019, he taught and led public communications at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Previously, he led communications at the University of Kansas and was a reporter and manager for newspapers in Kansas, Iowa and California. In these roles, he earned recognition from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the University of Colorado and various press associations.

Tom earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from KU and a master’s degree in public administration from CU. He enjoys college sports, vintage cars, cooking Kansas City-style barbeques, skiing and hiking.

He and his wife Julie have two daughters and a son.