Knox News is publishing a series of stories about the experience of health care professionals who have treated COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic. The series evolved from a series of conversations with health care providers initiated by Knox News about gaining more insight into the challenges faced by health care professionals. Covenant Health agreed to connect us with employees who have been on the front lines. The stories are meant to capture a single experience and do not fully portray the extent of the virus’s toll on patients, providers and the community. We hope these articles highlight the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a way, Dr. Jack Tarr has never left home.
He attended Carson Newman University, which was “just up the road” from his family home in the hills of East Tennessee, before earning his medical degree at the University of Tennessee at Memphis. For seven years, he served in the Navy, but his heart stayed anchored here. When he got the opportunity to return the people and patients he cared for, he founded FamilyCare Specialists in Knoxville.
“It’s home,” he answered with a shrug when asked why he came back.
Now 70 years old, Tarr keeps to himself most of the time. He tucks himself away into his cramped “closet office,” as he likes to call it, unless there are in-person patients to treat. Although, most days the majority of patients he sees are on a screen.
Over the years, he’s learned the names and lives of his regulars. There’s a particular closeness you gain when you’re swabbing a nose or drawing blood. Tarr and many of his patients are friends, which made the COVID-19 pandemic more personal than anything he’s done in his professional career.
Fear without fact, for now
For the first couple months of 2020, Tarr felt like he was holding his breath – not knowing when a deluge of cases would come. He had seen what happened in Wuhan, China and Italy. His West Knoxville office was calm, but concern about COVID-19 was quietly building.
He knew his clinic would be the first stop for people who could potentially have COVID-19. Tarr and his team of nurses would have to test and deliver results to an unknown number of seriously sick people in the coming months. They were bracing for impact without any idea of what to expect.
“We had our fears that it could get fairly bad but didn’t know what that meant,” Tarr said. “So there was trepidation without a lot of fact.”
Scientific studies were few and far between, so Tarr and other physicians in his practice were gleaning what they could from the news, waiting to hear how bad things really were. That’s when Covenant Health began a concerted effort to get ahead of the curve, procuring protective equipment and supplies to care for patients.
Covenant instructed family practices to only care for patients experiencing emergencies while the health care system planned its next moves to prevent the virus. Tarr said it was a “strange feeling” when his staff stopped scheduling appointments and the lobby was suddenly empty. Tarr started to worry if he and his colleagues would lose their jobs just before the community might need them most.
“At that point, I think we all knew that we were in for a lot of trouble.”
But Tarr had no idea what was on the way.
Not quite ‘normal’
Within a few weeks, Tarr’s practice could resume care, but by telehealth systems. It took some getting used to for Tarr, FamilyCare staff and patients, but slowly, normalcy seemed to resume.
“The days became fairly normal, even though it was by video, in many cases,” Tarr said. “There’s a lot of people who still needed to get their medication and hear from us about their illnesses.”
Only the sickest patients would be seen in-person, in a back area of the office away from others. All other appointments would take place via video. Patients who tested positive learned from FamilyCare’s parking lot.
The gowns, gloves, face shields and masks weren’t enough…