Since the first widespread reports in the United States of the novel coronavirus surfaced in January, thousands of Notre Dame staff and faculty have responded in a multitude of ways in support of all who work, teach, research, learn, worship and visit here. Among them are two physicians on the front line of the University’s response — one with Notre Dame’s University Health Services (UHS) and the other with the Notre Dame Wellness Center — both of whom have been providing care to patients and advice to University administrators.
Drs. Kathy Cohoon and Ben Garman both serve on Notre Dame’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) team. Dr. Cohoon is a staff physician in UHS and Dr. Garman is the medical director at the Wellness Center. They agreed to take some time out of their busy schedules to answer a few questions from fellow EOC member Dennis Brown, assistant vice president for news and media relations, on their backgrounds, education, experiences at Notre Dame and thoughts on the pandemic.
DB: To begin, tell us a little about yourself.
Dr. Cohoon: I was born and raised in South Bend, left the state for college, graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and then returned to Indiana for med school and have not left the state since.
Dr. Garman: I grew up in Granger and went to Elkhart public schools. I then went to Purdue and studied biology and physiology.
DB: When and why did you become interested in a career in medicine?
Dr. Cohoon: My father is a local family doctor and I grew up around medicine, going to the hospital with him to make rounds on his patients and helping out in the office when I was able. Honestly, becoming a doctor was the only career I ever considered so I guess it was a good thing that I was accepted into medical school.
Dr. Garman: I initially wanted to go into biomedical engineering and did research in prosthetics for four years while studying at Purdue. Somewhere along that journey I got frustrated with the relative isolation of the research I was participating in and became concerned about continuing it as a career path, so I started looking into alternatives. Eventually I landed on medicine as it still allowed me to work in a scientific manner while seeing other people every day.
DB: Where did you attend med school and why?
Dr. Cohoon: Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.This was actually the only school that I applied to. I figured it was a good deal financially to stay in state, and IU was the only medical school in the state at the time.
Dr. Garman: I went to Indiana School of Medicine in Indianapolis. It was the only medical school I applied to, as I didn't feel I could afford to go to an out-of-state medical school.
DB: Did you specialize in anything?
Dr. Cohoon: Family medicine
Dr. Garman: I am board certified in family medicine. Technically that is a specialty, but people wouldn't consider me a “specialist.”
DB: Where did you practice before coming into your current position?
Dr. Cohoon: I did my family medicine residency here in South Bend at Memorial Hospital. I was offered the opportunity to stay there and join the faculty at the residency program when I was graduating, so I accepted that offer and worked there until coming to Notre Dame in 2006.
Dr. Garman: I used to work for St. Joseph Hospital. I saw patients at Riverpark Family Medicine half of each week, and also taught the resident physicians at St. Joe half of each week and helped them see patients in the hospital and deliver babies.
DB: How did you end up in your current position? And when did you start?
Dr. Cohoon: After working at the residency for 11 years, four children and one dog later, in 2006 I was interested in making a change. I knew the director at UHS at the time from Memorial Hospital and I contacted her expressing my interest in college health and the patient population that is generally seen in college health. Though there were no openings when I initially contacted her, after a bit of time an opening did come up and the rest is history!
Dr. Garman: I was made aware of the position being open by an ex-coworker who had previously worked with me at the residency at St. Joe. It seemed like — and is — a great opportunity to grow as a professional, and it also had a more stable schedule, which gave me more opportunities to see my wife. I started working here at the Notre Dame Wellness Center a little over a year ago.
DB: In normal times, what's it like to practice medicine at Notre Dame?
Dr. Cohoon: University Health Services is a great place to practice medicine. It’s often quite busy but nonetheless amazing. There is more variety in diagnoses than most would expect we see. It’s not all coughs and colds! It is great to be able to see young and generally healthy people who you can guide and educate both about making smart choices for their health and wellbeing in the long term, as well as to be able to assist them when they are not feeling well acutely. For those patients with chronic medical issues, the service model at UHS affords the opportunity to build relationships and get to know patients on a more personal level, which family medicine physicians are trained to do.
Dr. Garman: Normally I would see patients four days a week, and spend a fifth day making sure the clinic is running smoothly, setting up schedules, following up on tests and other administrative duties. More recently, I do almost all of my patient visits over the phone and attend significantly more meetings both on and off campus regarding the pandemic.
DB: When did the novel coronavirus come onto your radar screen?
Dr. Cohoon: January 21, about 6 p.m., after I spoke with a concerned parent on the phone. I knew we were heading into something out of the ordinary at that time.
Dr. Garman: I remember first hearing about it in early January when it was first being reported in China. At first, I had hoped it would remain a local outbreak, but I have a few friends who live in South Korea and they started talking about cases there and what steps they were doing to contain it. I was asked to join an advisory board regarding COVID-19 in late January by my employer (Premise Health) and we have met at least once a week for the last 12 weeks. Initially we met to share data on tracking the spread of the disease, but once it spread out of China we started shifting focus. I distinctly remember seeing reports of the first few cases in Italy and that is when I became convinced this was going to become a global pandemic.
DB: Have you had any experiences related to the virus that you can share?
Dr. Garman: I can’t share any patient experiences, but my parents were on the cruise ship Grand Princess that was quarantined in March. They found out about two months ago while on the cruise that a previous passenger had died from COVID-19. They were pretty scared and ended up being quarantined on a military base in Georgia for two weeks before being allowed to drive home. Thankfully neither of them got sick and they are doing fine, though the whole situation was emotionally traumatic for them both.
I have contact with a healthcare worker in northern Italy, and he took some time to share some stories with me at the start of the worst of their outbreak and it was truly terrifying. I didn’t really sleep well for four or five days afterwards, and it is a big reason why I’ve been championing mitigation and preparedness locally.
DB: What has been your impression of the way Notre Dame has approached this?
Dr. Cohoon: I am so impressed with the way Notre Dame approached these uncharted waters. The University has gone above and beyond to get students safely returned to the States in amazingly timely fashions; packaging essentially needed items from rooms and shipping them to students; contacting those that UHS has been made aware of that may be ill with the virus just to be sure they are doing OK; making sure that all students have a safe place to be, whether it be home or remaining here in South Bend. I don’t think any student, or need they may have, has been overlooked or forgotten. I am very honored and grateful to have the opportunity to be involved with the work being done.
Dr. Garman: I think they have been very flexible and have listened to reason. I think this pandemic has really caught the whole world flat-footed to some degree. Notre Dame was quick to approach this problem by bringing together multiple groups to tackle this from all angles. When it became apparent that strong actions needed to be taken even before there were a significant number or local cases, Notre Dame didn’t hesitate to follow medical advice. Many of the actions they took would have been unthinkable even four months ago and I think that was very thoughtful, forward-thinking and wise.
DB: What advice do you have for students, faculty, staff and anyone who may be reading this?
Dr. Cohoon: Hang tight, be patient and continue to social distance even though it is getting old for all of us. There is still so much that is not known about this virus and what the best “next steps” really are to reopen the country and world and get people safely back to work and school and life. Medical professionals everywhere are working tirelessly to try to find answers and to develop treatments and vaccines. Have faith. We are going to come back from this, most likely to a different normal, but perhaps an even better normal.
Dr. Garman: Faculty and staff should feel free to contact the Wellness Center if they have questions or concerns regarding COVID-19 or other health matters. We have had a hotline and triage protocols for COVID-19 set in place for over a month now. We are still open though most of our meetings are over the phone and the pharmacy is drive-through only. We would be happy to assist in any way we can.
DB: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Dr. Garman: On a personal level, I’d ask everyone to be patient and compassionate to your friends, family, colleagues and fellow citizens. This disease is putting a heavy toll on our health as a society, but it also has caused many financial and emotional burdens as well. Those of you with the means, please consider donating your time and/or money to local food banks. Many people are out of work and this virus isn’t going to go away quickly. Call your friends and family, even if it is just to say hi, and make sure they are doing OK. And on a final note, be patient with the stay-at-home order and any other limitations officials have set in place due to the pandemic. You have to take aggressive, early mitigation efforts to slow down a pandemic and there are only two options when dealing with public health: Either you can act early and people will accuse you of being an alarmist, or you can act late and many more people will die.