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Battle-tested military vet helps lead hospital’s COVID-19 response

Dr. Greg Beilman, a trauma surgeon and Iraq/Afghan vet who is leading M Health Fairview’s incident command center, consulted by phone with an ICU doctor about available space within the system in June. (Star Tribune/TNS)

At first glance, Dr. Greg Beilman may seem an odd choice to lead the M Health Fairview system’s COVID-19 effort.

He’s a trauma surgeon, not an infectious disease specialist or an epidemiologist. He’s a doctor and medical school professor whose career path and adrenaline-filled military work in Iraq and Afghanistan seem a bit mismatched for the challenge of confronting an unpredictable and insidious pandemic.

But colleagues believe Beilman, chosen in March as co-leader of the COVID-19 incident command center for the entire M Health Fairview system, is the ideal person for the job.

“He was made for this,” said Linda Wick, M Health Fairview’s associate chief nurse executive and Beilman’s cohort leading the incident command center.

A battle-tested military veteran who was forced to hone his lifesaving surgeon skills on the fly, Beilman now finds himself in another tense spot with COVID-19, scrambling to address problems caused by a deadly virus that has puzzled doctors and health officials while infecting millions around the globe.

“Every day you wake up, you think you know what you’ll face that day, and 20 minutes later something else is happening,” Beilman said of the COVID-19 fight. “That’s the same as my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can plan — but as Eisenhower said, no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

At 61, Beilman is both an academic and a clinician, a connector who bridges divides between disciplines.

Parts of him fit the image of a trauma surgeon in total command of the operating room suite. But other parts reflect a Renaissance man of the medical world, someone who can perform under the intense pressure of a trauma surgeon’s stage while also taking a holistic view of health care.

Beilman has done four overseas deployments as a U.S. Army reservist. He worked at a combat hospital in Tikrit, Iraq in 2005, treating American service members as well as Iraqi nationals.

He volunteered for an eight-month deployment in 2008 and 2009 — when his children were 11 and 12 — to lead the U.S. military’s trauma program in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s made frequent trips to Uganda with his friend, fellow University of Minnesota professor and surgeon Jeff Chipman, where they perform surgeries and work on improving care at a hospital near Kampala.

“You might argue an infectious disease physician would carry the most content knowledge, but this isn’t just about a virus and its spread,” said James Hereford, the CEO of M Health Fairview. “It’s about how to respond clinically, the realities on how this should be done clinically and operationally. It’s less the trauma surgeon than the other attributes — the clarity and the compassion — that make him the right person at the right time.”

Kosovo changed his life

Beilman loves the outdoors. He was a Boy Scout growing up, and as a father he helped run his son’s troop. He paddles the Boundary Waters and hikes the Colorado mountains. When he was honeymooning in central Colorado a quarter-century ago, he and his wife, a pediatric neurologist, spontaneously bought a cabin near Leadville. His vacations are often filled with work.

He grew up the oldest of six kids in Wichita, Kan., where his father worked for Boeing. After medical school at the University of Kansas, he joined the military as a reservist while a resident in Wichita, and came to Minnesota on a fellowship. Shortly before his eight-year military commitment was due to end, and not long before 9/11, he was deployed to Kosovo.

It changed his life.

“I went over there,” Beilman recalled, “and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m a trauma surgeon, and this is what trauma surgery is all about: Saving people’s lives in a situation where you have to make quick decisions and do the right thing.’ ”

Beilman’s stint in Kosovo and his first deployment to Iraq developed his operative skills faster than if he had honed them as a civilian. In the Iraqi combat hospital, patients often needed quick interventions to save a limb or a life.

In his second Middle East deployment, Beilman switched to an administrative role, leading the trauma system for Iraq and Afghanistan. He was in charge of quality improvement and flew from one combat support hospital to another in both countries. He made sure a hospital in Mosul had an ultrasound device to diagnose vascular injuries. Via videocall, he taught a surgeon how to do a fasciotomy to save a limb. Much of his work was figuring things out spur of the moment.

“That’s very much what we’re doing now — we’re dealing with a brand-new disease that in many ways we don’t understand, and that we don’t have protocols for,” said Beilman, who on top of being a practicing surgeon serves as M Health Fairview’s senior vice president for acute operations.

“What’s helped me a lot through the current COVID pandemic is that you do your best every day, and something new is thrown at you the next day that none of us had thought of, and you’ll do your best that day, too.”

Not one for the sidelines

Friends say Beilman’s drive is motivated by his compassion for those who are suffering.

The moment Chipman realized the depth of their friendship was when he was taken to the emergency room after a seizure. Chipman called his wife. The next thing Chipman knew, he was being wheeled down to get an MRI, and there stood Beilman.

“He said to me, ‘Can I go look at the results?’?” Chipman said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to hang out with me — he wanted to go look at the film.”

There was no way Beilman would sit on the sidelines during a global pandemic. While there’s less adrenaline to this administrative role — ensuring there’s enough personal protective equipment or ICU beds, or debating how to triage care in a way civilian doctors have never done — than as a trauma surgeon at a combat hospital, it’s just as vital. And though the incident command structure has recently been scaled back, it can be quickly activated again if Minnesota experiences a surge.

“It’s true for me and true for him: being able to do something specifically about this has been lifesaving,” Chipman said.

Like many soldiers, Beilman loves catchphrases. One of his most frequent mottos comes from the military: “Adapt, improvise and overcome.”

The biggest initial challenge for M Health Fairview as Minnesota’s first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in March was figuring out where to treat the most severe patients. Within the incident command center’s first few weeks, the group decided to convert Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul into a hospital solely for COVID-19 patients. Leading their list of concerns was protecting staff from getting infected. A vital part of that was creating negative-pressure rooms, which prevent airborne diseases from escaping an isolation room by pulling in indoor air and filtering that air before moving it outside.

While they worked to get the new hospital operating as soon as possible, facilities employees said it would take two months to get negative-airflow rooms. So Beilman turned into MacGyver.

“He was pushing the facilities department, ‘How can you do that in a different way to get negative airflow?’ ” Wick recalled.

“ ‘Well, we could get a fan and pop a hole in the wall.’ ‘How long would that take you?’ ‘72 hours.’ ‘Well, that’s what we’re going to do.’ ”

In less than a week, a 50-bed, long-term acute care hospital morphed into Minnesota’s first hospital — and one of the nation’s first — dedicated to severe COVID-19 cases.

“It’s the willingness to work with the ‘indefinitude’ of the situation, if I can coin a word,” Beilman said. “Much of what we’re doing is the 80 percent solution. We’re looking for something that’s 80 percent right. None of us knows the right answers here, and all of us are working together to figure that out.?“Like Iraq or Afghanistan, we don’t know the right answers. This is not something we’ve seen before. We’ll make it better next week and make it better the week after.”


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