Alumni in Action: Drs. Jeff ’91 and Heather ’92 Wentworth on the medical landscape under COVID-19

The husband and wife duo practitioners discuss how the pandemic is affecting their medical practices in different ways.

Jeff ’91  and Heather ’92 Wentworth are a husband and wife duo of doctors who, in 20 years of practice, have never seen anything like the current medical landscape. For each of them, their practices and methods taken to care for their patients have been drastically altered, but in different ways.

Heather, an emergency room physician who was initially drawn to the variety of patients and situations found in emergency work, is used to the intensity and unpredictable nature of a typical emergency room. She is accustomed to greeting chaos and the unknown whenever she starts a shift. However, with the added layer of uncertainty from a novel virus taking hold of society comes additional stress. Stress in the form of worrying if enough precautions are taken when preparing for a shift or leaving to head home to her family. Did you clean every surface? Did you scrub every area of exposed skin?

Jeff, a doctor of gynecology focusing mainly in surgery, was drawn to the personal nature of working one on one with patients and helping them through difficult times. Instead of the added layers of stress and concern for whether or not he is following every new safety measure precisely, the opposite has happened. Since his practice was required to cancel all non-life threatening surgeries at the end of March and will not begin rescheduling until June at the earliest, treatment of his patients has been delayed. This leaves very few to no options for his patients in need since surgery was their last resort. It also creates the added stress of managing a practice with significant loss in revenue. What do you tell patients who need care, but there is no further care available right now? In addition to patient needs, how do you keep a practice open with very little income?

For Heather, it’s a major shift in taking extra precautions before jumping into her normally rapid response action. For Jeff, it’s wanting to take action, but not being able to. “I think what has been very stressful for me, and quite frankly most of the people I work with, is that at this stage of my career it is very rare there is something that I’ve never seen before or that is a new disease that there isn’t a paradigm of how to take care of it,” Heather said.

The protective measures required with every procedure also take their toll. Not only is the everyday information changing about the virus itself, but the way emergency rooms have been operating for decades is vastly different as well. One of the biggest changes has been adjusting from the team-oriented nature of a typical ER. Instead of the usual five or six person team who each have their own role to play, it is oftentimes now just a doctor and one other professional in the room.

“Now, you go in a room with a hazmat suit and you seal the door and it’s you and one other person,” Heather explained. “If something were to happen with a patient and there are certain interventions that you would normally do, those interventions are so dangerous that we can’t perform them until we protect the staff. It’s a hard adaptation for us to make and we struggle with that,” she said. “Even using maximum protection, people are still exposed. It’s very hard to not be able to do things the way you’re used to doing them because you risk endangering your staff.”

Like Heather, Jeff has had to pivot from his typical methods of practice, but for him, it is difficult having to tell patients there is nothing further they can do until the restrictions are lifted for elective surgeries.

“What few patients I am seeing now that are in need of surgery, unfortunately I’m telling some of them they won’t have their surgery until September or October, or even later,” Jeff said. “It’s just unbelievable. I never thought I’d see anything quite like this. It’s difficult when you don’t have much to offer these unfortunate patients.”

The Wentworth family

In addition, as the president of his practice, which includes an expansive team of medical professionals over three locations, he has had to balance managing his practice with a significantly reduced income due to the reduction in services and surgeries.

“With our significant loss of revenue, we have had to close an office and furlough many employees,” Jeff explained. “So, my major stress right now is practice management. I have to think about payroll, paying rents and managing human resources. These are things they don’t teach in medical school.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for either Wentworth is their love for their family. And chores. Like much of the country, their two college-aged kids are home finishing their schoolwork online, and in keeping things as normal as possible, the kids still have to change their own sheets and help with the dusting.

Jeff and Heather met while attending Elon and after adventuring in Arizona for their residencies, they found their way to , where they still practice and where they raised their two children. Family is what is helping them get through this.

“In all honesty, the best thing in all of this is I have both my kids home and they’re not rushing out the door,” Heather said. “They’ve been away at college for a year and I’m so grateful that they’re both home right now. Knowing that they’re here and safe helps my anxiety tremendously.”

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.