When the ominous specter of the coronavirus came into view earlier this year, three highly respected doctors at Sheba Medical Center in Israel banded together for the sake of a common cause — to treat virus-stricken patients within a unique, groundbreaking environment and to use the hospital’s advanced scientific facilities to discover ways to attack, and hopefully destroy, this global scourge. Meet Professors Galia Rahav and Gili Regev-Yochay and Dr. Galia Barkai.
Prof. Galia Rahav, director of the Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory at Sheba Medical Center Tel Hashomer, is one of Israel’s leading experts in this field. She has dealt with pandemics in the past, but none that spread so quickly.
“We were introduced to corona on Dec. 31, 2019. Within three weeks, China already had hundreds of patients and several deaths,” she said. “Two and a half months later, it was clearly an epidemic, with very disturbing images coming out of China and Italy.”
The game-changer (for Israel) came in the form of 15 Israeli passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. “When we learned that they were about to come home, Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, Sheba’s director general, shouldered the overwhelming responsibility of treating the patients, and we sprang into action to prepare an isolation compound for them,” Prof. Rahav recalled. “We appointed a clinician to treat the patients and to track them. On site, my job was to make clinical decisions — which tests to run, what treatment to administer and to formulate procedures. I also had to be the psychologist — to talk to people and calm them down. Several weeks later, after everything was running smoothly, I switched jobs and established the frontline Critical Corona Care Unit at Sheba Medical Center, in order to separate the severely ill patients from the others.”
Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit at Sheba, predicted the outbreak of the epidemic. “In mid-January there was a workshop in Germany for 30 participants, one of whom was from China,” she said. “When the Chinese participant returned home, she didn’t feel well, and it transpired that she had corona. At the end of January, when it was revealed that six German participants had also been infected with corona, I immediately predicted exactly what is now happening. I knew that we were facing an epidemic with which we were not familiar. I told the Ministry of Health that we have to prepare for something entirely different.”
Prof. Regev-Yochay explains, “I understood immediately that if people without symptoms are contagious, it would spread like wildfire. The Germans were wise to immediately test anyone who had come into contact with the Chinese visitor and place them in isolation. The tests were the critical elements in treating the outbreak.”
Prof. Regev-Yochay was instrumental in helping Sheba construct the first Corona Isolation Compound in Israel at an off-campus site, to allow the daily work of the regular hospital to continue without fear of spreading the virus.
Dr. Galia Barkai, director of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Unit at Sheba Medical Center, was already working on a first-in-the-world telemedicine homecare program for psychiatric patients, as well as other telemedicine applications when Covid-19 presented her with the ultimate challenge — treating corona patients from a distance, without exposing doctors and nurses to the virus. She was the first face seen by the returning travelers from the Diamond Princess, when they were sent to Sheba’s groundbreaking isolation complex (located off-campus).
“We had to organize the technology in order to reduce interaction with patients to zero, in order to protect the staff,” she recalled. “The next day, I enlisted all the high-tech companies I know and I told them, ‘This is what we need, see what you can do for us.’ All the start-up companies we chose were Israeli. Juniper, which contributed all the equipment, developed technology that connects to a television and turns it into your cell phone, so that you can conduct group calls in the easiest and most accessible way. We did this because we feared that some of the older patients were not sufficiently adept at using more sophisticated methods. We use this platform to talk with them and care for them, and we also added landline and cellular telephones for backup in case they were unable to manage and wanted to talk with us or with family members.”
She added: “In the room of each isolated patient, we also installed a TytoCare tablet that facilitates performing physical examinations at a distance, as well as EarlySense sensors under the mattresses to monitor heartbeat, breaths and movement, with a smart algorithm that can predict a deteriorating condition. We also have an InTouch robot that can communicate with the medical staff and can enter the patient’s room in an emergency.”
The success of the corona telemedicine program sparked a global impact. Dr. Barkai was interviewed by many major media outlets. As a result, hospitals in the U.S. and around the world have inquired about incorporating her telemedicine program into their own systems.