UTHSC Emergency Medicine Physician Ready to Lead Alternate-Care COVID-19 Hospital

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Dr. Richard Walker, center, walks through the alternate-care hospital on May 18 with Army Corps of Engineers representatives, left, as well as Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, to his immediate right, and Gov. Bill Lee.

Richard Walker, MD, has never been one to back away from emergency situations.

Before attending medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, he served with the local Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. As a technical search specialist and later a rescue officer, he worked during the aftermath of the 1994 Germantown tornado on Thanksgiving weekend that killed three people and injured another 25.

While an intern at UTHSC, he took his vacation time to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Three days after the massive storm, he was in the devastated 9th Ward caring for the injured there. He and fellow UTHSC resident physician, Dr. Kelly Scrantz, spent two weeks going door-to-door and setting up clinics in underserved areas of that city.

A 2005 graduate of the UTHSC College of Medicine and now the interim chair of Emergency Medicine and program director for the Emergency Medicine Residency at his alma mater, Dr. Walker stands ready to face an emergency that threatens the community he calls home

Dr. Walker is the chief executive officer and medical team leader for the new alternate-care hospital for COVID-19 patients that has been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the former Commercial Appeal building on Union Avenue in the Memphis Medical District. It is one of more than three dozen such facilities across the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers worked around the clock for roughly a month to transform the former newspaper building into a hospital. The Corps handed off the building to the state on May 18. UTHSC has been charged with running the facility, if it is called into action.

The 401-bed hospital 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.

Dr. Walker hopes this will not happen. But if it does, he said he and his team are ready.

“We’re assembling the best group of people humanly possible,” he said. “While it is a temporary hospital, it is one we’ve all made absolutely every effort to make as safe as possible. This facility would be a place we would feel comfortable putting our own mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters.”

Dr. Walker graduated from Rhodes College in 1996 with a degree in biology. He worked as a professional diver for several years, before returning to complete a master’s degree in biology from the University of Memphis. He later completed the NASA Space Medicine clerkship in the Department of Flight Surgery at Johnson Space Center in Houston, working on medical emergencies encountered during space walks.

After internship, he completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Alabama, and then trained in undersea medicine through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Diving Medical Course, while completing a Duke University Fellowship in Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine.

Following that fellowship at Duke, Dr. Walker returned to UTHSC and set up the emergency medicine residency program for the College of Medicine and was its first program director. He oversaw the installation of residents at Methodist University Hospital and then integrated the residency into the trauma center. He said that since the introduction of emergency medicine faculty and residents to the system, wait times have decreased by hours, patient satisfaction has increased, medical errors are down, and there were no days of trauma diversion due to ER wait times in the first year after he took over as chief of service for Emergency Medicine at the trauma center.

In addition, Emergency Medicine residents and faculty have been trained in disaster management and handling outbreaks since the inception of the residency program in 2014, and they were able to share this knowledge with other departments when the pandemic started.

Dr. Walker is board certified in Emergency Medicine and in Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine. Among his other accomplishments, he still teaches cave diving, mixed gas diving, and rebreather diving, when he has free time.

He said he feels his experience with disaster management and in managing resources for emergency services equips him to lead the hospital, if it is ever needed. While his position as chief executive officer is primarily administrative, he is not a hands-off administrator.

“I’ve always been a lead-from-the-front type of person,” Dr. Walker said. “I think I can do a better job ensuring that I’m actually spending some shifts caring for patients in the facility and working to identify problems from firsthand experience.”

Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, tapped Dr. Walker for the job of CEO. “I am exceptionally proud of our UTHSC leadership team and the incredible partnership we have forged with the Army Corps of Engineers, the city of Memphis, Shelby County, and the state – a partnership that made this Herculean achievement possible,” the dean said. “Dr. Walker is a skilled, compassionate, and dedicated leader, and we, as a region, are incredibly fortunate that he is running this site.”

While Dr. Walker is pleased the alternate-care hospital stands ready to face an emergency, he cautions that every individual can play a role in avoiding the need to use it.

“I would want the public to know that they can help the medical system avoid being overwhelmed, and therefore, this facility being needed, by voluntarily making efforts to continue social distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks. Those three things are essential, and can save many, many more lives than even the alternate-care hospital can, if everyone pitches in and stays dedicated to limiting the spread of the virus.”

Editor’s note: On Friday, read about Terri Stewart, from the UTHSC College of Nursing, who will be the chief nursing officer for the alternate-care hospital.