For Amik Sodhi, MD, MPH, the coronavirus pandemic has been a crash course in battling an unprecedented adversary.
A pulmonologist and interim chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Dr. Sodhi and her colleagues have for the past few months been front and center caring for patients with the serious respiratory consequences of COVID-19.
Armed with this experience and a distinguished career in pulmonology and critical care, Dr. Sodhi has joined the leadership of the region’s alternate-care COVID-19 hospital as the chief medical officer (CMO). She is working with Richard Walker, MD, interim chair of Emergency Medicine at UTHSC and program director for the Emergency Medicine Residency, and Terri Stewart, MSN, RN, an instructor in the UTHSC College of Nursing, to get the alternate-care hospital in the Memphis Medical District ready if it is needed. Dr. Walker serves as the chief executive officer (CEO) for the facility and Stewart is the chief nursing officer (CNO).
“I joined the team in late May,” Dr. Sodhi said. “From the start, I’ve been very impressed with the stellar work that the team has done in putting together so much of this, not only the physical hospital, but also a lot of background work that needs to go into opening a hospital and making sure that it’s functional.”
The 401-bed hospital was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the former Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue near the UTHSC campus. It is one of more than three dozen such facilities across the country.
The Corps turned over the building to the state on May 18. UTHSC is charged with running the facility, which is designed for low- and moderate-acuity COVID-19 patients who do not need the higher-level care that hospitals can provide. It is intended to handle hospital overflow in the event of a surge in cases, freeing up hospitals for the most-severe cases.
“The expertise that I bring to this job, I’ve developed over years of managing respiratory diseases in my various roles at the hospital and at UTHSC,” Dr. Sodhi said. “Having been in the trenches during the last few months, working and taking care of COVID-19 patients, gives me unique insight that I hope to utilize at the alternate-care site. My colleagues in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine have been phenomenal in attacking this pandemic on various fronts. We’ve learned a lot from working together and from collaborating with physicians at various regional hospitals to make sense of this disease and to figure out how best to take care of these patients.” Dr. Sodhi practices primarily at Methodist University Hospital.
Dr. Walker, the site’s CEO, is one of those physicians. “I have had the great fortune to work with Dr. Sodhi for many years when admitting critically ill patients to her service from the emergency department,” he said. “She is an excellent physician and educator and is the perfect choice to manage care for this predominately pulmonary pandemic. We worked together at University Hospital to initially develop treatment plans and hospital management of COVID patients when the pandemic started, so I was delighted she agreed to come on board at the alternate-care site.”
As the CMO of the COVID hospital, Dr. Sodhi said she will oversee the medical needs of the patients and the staff, working to ensure the well-being of everyone while they’re in the hospital. Her role will also involve logistics and equipment management. “It involves a lot of planning in terms of what the medical records will look like, what the patient flow will look like, how the staff is going to be able to take care of these patients effectively,” she said.
She will coordinate with the chief nursing officer to make sure the hospital operates efficiently. “Taking care of a patient isn’t just up to the physician,” she said. “It takes a team, including nursing and pharmacy and respiratory therapy and a whole slew of other services that are required to make sure that we can take care of these patients appropriately.”
Currently, the site leadership meets at least twice a week with representatives of the Tennessee Department of Health. The medical team also meets once or twice a week to be ready if the facility is called into action, she said.
“We are concerned about some of the trajectories in the city, and both the Shelby County and the Tennessee Department of Health are really watching all of those numbers closely,” Dr. Sodhi said. “Ultimately, it will be up to the governor to decide if the site needs to be activated or not, with input from the Department of Health.”
If that order comes, Dr. Sodhi expects it will take about two weeks to mobilize the facility, orient staff, and put wrap-around services, including food services, in place. “There are a lot of moving parts,” she said. “We would like to be up and running as quickly as possible, because we obviously understand that if the site is being activated, the city is having trouble with its numbers and capacity.”
The pandemic “has been a rapid education and a steep learning curve” for all health care professionals, she said. “As a pulmonologist, I’m uniquely situated in this because I understand the disease. I understand what it does to patients. I understand the trajectory that these patients usually have. And hopefully, that expertise will come in handy in supporting the physicians taking care of these patients. It also helps to be able to set up the hospital like we need to.”
She said the alternate-care hospital is “sort of an emergency escape hatch” that everyone hopes will never have to be used.
“If we do reach that point where our hospitals are overwhelmed, then this is what we can offer,” she said. “We have the ability to take 400 patients and actually be able to provide them with care and be able to get them through their illness, rather than saying, ‘Hey, we don’t have any more space.’ ”
Dr. Sodhi was raised in India and graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. She received a Master’s in Public Health degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and completed an internal medicine internship and residency from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as well as a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Montefiore Medical Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
She joined UTHSC in 2012 and was named interim chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine in 2018.
She said she is honored and humbled that UTHSC College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD, and Dr. Walker asked her to take the CMO position.
“I think during times like this, where not just our community, but the world, is facing something that’s unknown, something that is scary, and something that really upended our understanding of social interaction and the things we considered normal, to be able to contribute in a concrete way and be able to take care of some of those patients and take care of our community needs, I think is very humbling,” she said. “It’s going to be challenging, but I look forward to that.”
Dean Strome said Dr. Sodhi’s knowledge and experience position her for the leadership role in the facility. “She is not only an incredible doctor, but she is also wonderful administrator and a tremendous advocate for our community,” he said.