Medical Hero on the Front Line

St. John’s-born doctor Siobhan Duff battles the novel coronavirus in the Unites States, a country still bracing for the worst


Siobhan Duff is scared. The St. John’s native is practicing family medicine in Chattanooga, Tennessee and is bracing for a tsunami of COVID-19 cases as the virus unleashes its fury on the United States. 

As of Herald deadline, the Tennessee city hasn’t been hit like major American centers such as New York. But Duff knows it’s just a matter of time before it’s her city’s turn.

‘Escalation of calls’

“All of us sort of sense we are in a negative pressure system before a tornado,” said Dr. Duff, the daughter of former St. John’s mayor Shannie Duff. 

“We’ve already started to see an escalation of triage calls of people with probable COVID-19 and we’re just scrambling to try to direct them.”

On Thursday, March 26 her practice made the decision to convert all patient-doctor interaction to telemedicine calls for at least 14 days or until the practice could guarantee the safety of staff members through a higher availability of Personal Protective Equipment and Testing. It forced both caregivers and patients, especially those less technologically inclined, to adjust in order to give and receive care.

While much of the attention fixates on hospital preparations, primary care providers on the frontlines are already in a full blown war against COVID-19.

“I have a tent facility in my parking lot right now for lab and COVID testing,” says Duff. “The local hospital is probably two feet from where I am. They’re erecting their tent structures. I think the visible presence of this is everywhere. They have trucks ready for dealing with what they deal with when people die in a hospital. They’re parked outside. It’s going to get real, very real in a very short time here.”

War against COVID-19

As of the first week of April, Tennessee and Georgia reported 6,058 confirmed COVID-19 cases combined, but Duff said an inability to test more patients means that’s a gross under-representation of how many cases are actually in the community.

The practice conducted its first telemedicine visit March 20 and shifted to 100 per cent telemedicine for all patients and providers by March 25 to limit opportunity for exposure. As of the first week of April they had conducted 30 outdoor labs in a triage tent and 21,000 telemedicine encounters.

Although she’s a family doctor, Dr. Duff has been told she will be expected to work the front lines at the local hospital when the pandemic surges.

“It’s one of my greatest sources of anxiety,” says Dr. Duff. “I will probably be one of the first ones pulled into that role. I am pushing that day out as long as possible but I know it will come; that I will have to, in fact, leave this setting and permanently transfer, unable to travel between the two worlds again in the interest of protecting my staff here. I will have to take on a different role, in a different capacity. We’ll see when.”

When asked how she feels about that prospect, Duff didn’t mince words. “It’s terrifying actually. I’m scared for me and my family.”

As of April 8, just prior to The Herald’s editorial deadline, there were over 4,000 confirmed cases in the state of Tennessee, including in excess of 70 deaths. It’s health care heroes like Duff who are staring down the disease each day, approaching it like war.

“I can’t think of any other way to think of this. We are the soldiers. The testing is the military intelligence for containment to the enemy, and the PPE is the armament and the weapons,” said Duff, noting a limited capacity to test patients and scarce supply of PPE, or personal protective equipment, makes the task more dangerous.

“That has been the overriding cry of concern from people, and I communicate with literally hundreds of people through social media and through personal contact, not to mention patients,” she told The Times Free Press.

‘Battle without armor’

“Many of my patients are also providers in the community, and they are literally terrified that we are being sent into battle without armor.”

Since first being recorded late last year in China, the world remains at war with the COVID-19 coronavirus. More than 1.5 million cases have been reported worldwide along with over 80,000 deaths. Authorities continue to implement public restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, both in Duff’s home province and the country she currently practices. 

“We each have a role to play, and no one is safe from this,” warns Duff.

Following devastation in countries like China, Italy and Spain – where tens of thousands perished from the disease, the U.S. has emerged the latest country with mounting casualties. Over 400,000 cases have been reported with in excess of 13,000 deaths – the majority of those coming out of New York.

The fight continues, with measures in place in her home province and the COVID-19 hotbed that is the United States. “We are all in this together,” she says. “It’s a scary time right now but we will get through it. Even though I’m here a part of my heart is always there, at home.”

Editor’s Note: Siobhan Duff is one of this province’s most decorated athletes. She’s won more titles than any other female rower in the history of the Royal St. John’s Regatta, holding the women’s course record for 15 years.

One thought on “Medical Hero on the Front Line

  1. David
    April 24, 2020

    Regards from your Spaniards family, Siobhan!
    Stay safe and breath deeply,big hugs from Spain. Besos y abrazos, David.

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