The astonishing path of Dr. Herman Morchel MD PE M.Eng. ’80 makes him a man of talents and life experiences desperately needed in the battle against COVID-19 — a crisis, at its height in New York and New Jersey, he has described as “the closest we’ve come to doomsday.”
It is a remarkable statement from an experienced doctor, board certified in emergency medicine, who has served for 13 years with one of the busiest emergency departments in the Garden State.
An emergency room physician at Hackensack Meridian Health-Hackensack University Medical Center — ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic in hard-hit Bergen County, New Jersey — Morchel has put in many long shifts in the ER, especially during the height of the state’s COVID-19 cases in spring 2020. Then, there was even less known about the virus, he recalls, as daily updates streamed in from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and there were too many patients they just couldn’t save.
While working in the ER, Morchel, a longtime advanced technology electronics/computer systems engineer who switched careers and started his medical residency at age 52, also is medical and engineering director for three disaster response mobile emergency medical units — essentially ER/ICUs on wheels. These unique, high-technology units were used during the pandemic to provide additional clinical space.
Indeed, Morchel brings a unique perspective — and a lifetime of experiences — to every patient he meets. A cancer survivor who also underwent major surgeries years ago, he knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the stretcher.
“It makes me very empathetic toward someone who’s sick,” he says. “I’ve been in the ICU and a chemo patient. I’ve been scared.”
A time like no other
Speaking by phone from his home in Nutley, New Jersey, in early July, Morchel is refreshingly down-to-earth, with a generous spirit and willingness to share. His devotion to emergency medicine is full and deep.
Morchel wears several hats at the hospital, where he has worked since 2007. In addition to his work as an ER doctor, he is also an Emergency Medicine Residency faculty member at Hackensack University Medical Center, training the next generation of doctors. He established and directs the Simulation Training Lab, where new doctors learn with high-tech mannequins to insert breathing tubes and catheters and respond to emergencies from cardiac arrests to seizures to bleeding.
On this day in early July, as he reflects on the past several months, he notes that things had been improving in New Jersey. But as Morchel and his colleagues were just starting to “decompress,” they’re seeing some spikes in COVID-19 cases in the state, as well as across the country.
“It’s very concerning, very upsetting,” he says. “We watch every day. We will see how it plays out.”
When Morchel speaks about the height of the pandemic in New Jersey and New York during the spring, he still sounds pensive.
“The demand for oxygen was extremely high, like nothing we have ever seen. The logistics of donning and doffing PPE and decontamination protocols required training and retraining — and going against your instincts as a doctor to rush in and provide immediate care. But you really can’t rush in; you have to do the right thing to protect yourself and your patients.” Hackensack University Medical Center staff did not experience any PPE shortages. “The institution went to great lengths to train us and provide everything we needed,” Morchel says.
The medical staff did endure the trauma of seeing many patients, most of them alone, die of COVID-19, which has killed so many people. “It was something like we have never seen before; maybe it parallels influenza in the early 1900s,” Morchel says. “Certainly, in modern times, there was nothing ever like this.”
On the personal level, the conditions were extremely difficult.
“It really took a toll on many of us … we knew that many patients could not be saved,” Morchel recalls.“Everyone had to deal with that; discussions with family members about end-of-life care, which had to be conducted on the phone, were very emotional.
“It was a time like no other,” he says, quietly. “There was a lot going on. It was a rough time.”
In addition to his ER shifts and work with the mobile medical units, Morchel was asked to quickly convert several supply trailers associated with the mobile medical units into temporary morgues. One day, he noticed that the deceased patients, wrapped in body bags, had yellow daffodils attached to them. It was the idea of the senior morgue technician, to honor and remember them.
“She knew that the families can’t see them,” Morchel says. “I still remember that vividly. Helping move the bodies really had a lasting effect on me.”
From engineer to physician — an inspired path
Though first an engineer by training, medicine was never far from Morchel’s mind.
Morchel, who grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey — his grandfather and father ran a bakery — worked as an advanced technology electronics/computer systems design engineer for close to 30 years with ITT, a defense contractor in Nutley. His interest in medicine was ignited during a business trip when he encountered a man having a heart attack and didn’t know how best to help him. Morchel enrolled in a CPR course, and his passion for emergency medicine grew from there, starting as a volunteer EMT, later becoming a part-time paramedic at Hackensack University Medical Center, where he met his wife, Gail Morchel (who is director of Infection Prevention there), and eventually entering medical school at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School in Newark.
His own health challenges have inspired him along this path. Facing a serious health crisis and major surgeries in his early 30s, he was driven to help others thrive through their crises. He later faced a second health challenge, when he was diagnosed with cancer during his fourth year of medical school. He endured chemotherapy during rotations, graduated, took time to recover and later returned to medicine, starting his three-year Emergency Medicine Residency program at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center at age 52.
Morchel says his struggles have made him a better doctor. Sometimes, if appropriate, he will share his medical history with his patients.
“It makes a huge difference to people — you and I are in the survivors club,” he says. “Lots of times, you’ll see their faces light up.”
The fact of COVID-19 — and its legacy — still haunt him.
“The lesson is to expect anything, no matter how remote or unusual,” Morchel says. Emergency drills and stockpiling of equipment by hospitals are simply essential.
“It made me more aware — as much as we live in modern times, we get too confident and forget how vulnerable we really are.”
Guiding future doctors and engineers
As he responds to the immediate needs of his ER patients, Morchel also envisions the future of his professions, as he guides the next generation of doctors and engineers.
He recalls how he and his team brought two of the mobile medical units that he manages to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in 2018 after a hurricane heavily damaged the island’s only hospital. Morchel later was able to establish a four-week rotation there for Hackensack University Medical Center’s Emergency Medicine Residency doctors. The program is thriving two years later.
Morchel speaks fondly of his experience at Stevens. “I think that the education I received at Stevens was huge; it helped me tremendously.” His relationship with the school continues. He serves both as a volunteer adjunct clinical professor of biomedical engineering and on the department’s academic advisory board.
For a number of years, Morchel has worked with Stevens biomedical engineering professor Vikki Hazelwood Ph.D. ’07 and her senior design students on various research projects for Hackensack Meridian Health-Hackensack University Medical Center. These include transmitting ultrasound images that detect internal bleeding from ambulances to doctors in the ER, to devising easier ways to transport patients, to developing a less expensive but equally effective tissue substitute material for the mannequins in the simulation lab.
“The [Stevens] students are doing some really important work,” Morchel says. And they are learning from someone with work and life experience he is so willing to share.
This story is one of seven alumni features that make up “In Challenging Times, Look for the Helpers,” the cover story of the fall 2020 issue of The Stevens Indicator.