Hospital Epidemiologist, Baystate Medical Center; Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine, Baystate Health
She ‘Stands on a Wall Between the Community and Infectious Diseases’
By George O’Brien
Dr. Sarah Haessler has already been honored as a Healthcare Hero. Actually, a ‘Healthcare Superhero,’ to be more precise.
That was the unofficial title bestowed upon 76 fully vaccinated healthcare workers from across New England who attended the Super Bowl last February as guests of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The group flew down on the Patriots’ team plane and got to see Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl — and promote vaccination while they were at it.
Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center and vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Medicine at Baystate Health, was one of three from this region to be so honored; she was joined by Baystate colleague Stephen Boyle Sr., senior director of Hospitality; and Cherie Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Medical Center.
Haessler has many memories from that day, with only some of them involving the action on the field.
“It was the quintessential American experience,” she recalled, noting that healthcare workers from across the country were recognized at the game. “It was big. Everything about it was big. The music was loud, there were fireworks for everything, there were military flyovers, the jumbo screens had the president on them … America doesn’t do anything small. This was very big and very American.”
Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health. And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”
Haessler said pairs of tickets to the game were made available to various hospitals, and she was chosen by officials at Baystate to attend; she’s not sure how or why.
Matters are a little more clear when it comes to her being chosen as the winner in the intensely competitive Emerging Leader category for the Healthcare Heroes awards. She has been chosen in large part for her many efforts to prepare those at Baystate for what was coming in early 2020 and for her ongoing work throughout the pandemic to plan, educate, and help carry out all the operations of a hospital during extraordinary circumstances. But there is certainly more to the story. Indeed, COVID-19 wasn’t her first experience with a highly infectious disease, and she acknowledged, with some resignation born from experience in her voice, that it won’t be her last.
Meanwhile, she has taken on more leadership roles over the years, serving as interim chief medical officer at Baystate Noble Hospital and currently sitting on the board of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiologists of America.
Her work in her chosen field, and her status as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and beyond, is best summed up by Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer, incident commander, COVID-19 Response, at Baystate Health, who nominated her for this honor.
“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health,” he wrote. “And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”
In a candid interview, Haessler talked about that harsh reality, her work at Baystate, her chosen career in epidemiology, and the many kinds of rewards that come with it.
At the Top of Her Game
When asked how she chose epidemiology as a specialty, Haessler started by saying that, during her residency at Dartmouth, she was interested — make that fascinated — by all aspects of medicine. It soon became clear to her that she needed to pick something broad that would cross all other specialties.
“When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease,” she said.
“I’ve never looked back — I’ve always loved it,” she went on, adding that, in this field, she does get to interact with specialists of all kinds. “It’s been an interesting career — I’ve never been bored. And the other thing about it is that it just keeps moving. I’m a high-energy person — I keep moving — so it suits me very well.”
Things were certainly moving in the latter days of 2019, said Haessler, noting that the information coming to her from hospital epidemiologists in China, and later the state of Washington, made it clear that something ominous was on the horizon.
“We saw the pandemic potential for it because it was so swift and had created a huge influx of patients in those hospitals in Wuhan,” she recalled. “It essentially overwhelmed those hospitals immediately, and the fact that China’s approach was to put the area in lockdown … that is the kind of organism, like SARS, that causes a pandemic.”
She said Baystate was ready, in large part because it had gone through this before with other infectious diseases and had learned many valuable lessons. And she was at the forefront of these efforts.
“We had been through H1N1, and then we had been through the Ebola epidemic,” she explained. “And this really created an impetus, and a framework, across the United States for preparedness for the world’s most contagious diseases.”
Because of Ebola, Baystate had created a Special Pathogens Unit to manage extremely contagious patients, said Haessler, who manages this unit and the team that operates it. And as part of that team’s work, it created protocols and procedures for how it would manage patients, took steps to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of PPE, put in place scenarios for how patients would be cared for and where, determined if, when, and under what circumstances elective surgeries would be halted, and much more.
In short, as Artenstein noted in his nomination, Haessler was the point person for preparing the medical center for what everyone could see was coming.
“Her work provided great comfort to all, knowing that we had such an expert in such a key role,” he wrote. “Her team’s magnificent work in collaboration with employee health services led to the earliest possible recognition of infectious contacts and allowed us to limit the risks for patients and staff during a time of great uncertainty and fear.”
While the past tense is being used for most of these comments, the work battling COVID is obviously ongoing, said Haessler, adding that the Delta variant brings a new and very dangerous thread to this story.
When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease.”
When asked about what the past 18 months has been like, personally and professionally, she said, in essence, that it’s been the culmination of all her training and hard work.
“It’s been one of biggest events that I’ve had to participate in, and while it’s been challenging, it’s also been very gratifying, because Baystate has been an incredible organization, rising to the occasion in this. I’m so proud of Baystate; I’ve never been more proud to work at this organization and to be part of the leadership team.
“The responsiveness, the focus on what was important and what remains important, has been incredible,” she went on. “It’s been a laser focus on the safety of the healthcare workers, and protecting our patients and our healthcare workers from getting and passing this disease, getting the resources we needed to enable safe management of these patients, and staying really, really focused on what’s important here has been a phenomenal experience and an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.”
Returning to Raymond James Stadium and Super Bowl LV, Haessler said she had the opportunity to meet with healthcare workers from across the country who had been, at that time, battling with COVID for roughly a year.
“It was an opportunity to meet with other people, commiserate, and just be among kindred spirits — people had been through so much,” she said, adding that, seven months later, the fight continues, and in some ways, it has escalated.
In the future, there will be other fights against infectious diseases, she said, adding that the best hospitals and healthcare systems can do is try to be prepared, because, as Artenstein noted, these threats never cease.
That, in a nutshell, is what her career has been all about. Her ability to exceed in that role and many others has made her a Healthcare Hero — and a ‘superhero’ — as well as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and her chosen field.