EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in an occasional series about the men and women in Orange County working to combat Covid-19.
Since the start of the pandemic, doctors have dealt with the stress of see-sawing hospitalizations and seeing field hospitals emerge in their own county, relying on each other for support to combat the virus. Some have seen their colleagues get sick.
It has been a year and many of these medical workers are still on the frontlines battling the coronavirus pandemic as Orange County races to vaccinate a majority of residents by July Fourth.
The Voice of OC has reached out to several health care professionals in the county to share their experiences following the one-year anniversary of the pandemic.
In this article we highlight doctors. Here are snippets of their stories:
Dr. Shruti Gohil
When the coronavirus first popped up in the world, Dr. Shruti Gohil, the associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Medical Center, and her team quickly began preparing for the worst: the pandemic reaching Orange County.
In March those fears came true.
“I think we would have expected maybe a more robust testing and contact prevalence response early on. We had really thought that that would be done in a way that would be more strong,” she said about the initial challenges of the pandemic.
Gohil, from Anaheim, has co-led the UC Irvine Health System’s response to the pandemic and is an assistant professor of infectious disease in the Department of Medicine.
Another challenge for her team was the amount of misinformation about the virus.
“There’s just a lot of fear out there and we had to really work on helping our communities, and health care workers really understand the true risks,” Gohil said.
She added that health care workers see death all the time but it was different with COVID.
“With COVID no matter what we tried, there’d be patients – we gave them one medicine, two medicines, three medicines and they’re still struggling weeks and weeks later. I think that the amount of time our patients spent in our ICU being so darn critically ill – that was different,” Gohil said.
“For our health care workers to watch that day in, day out, I do think there was a fair degree of trauma.”
“It’s taxing and it’s taxing because you do feel somewhat helpless.”
Gohil and her team have not taken a proper vacation for over a year. She said she is grateful for her team and believes the pandemic has made health care workers better at patient care over all.
“I’m grateful that I have this great privilege to be involved in something as important as helping our communities get through this type of a pandemic,” Gohil said.
“Every bit of a dark moment is eventually followed by some learning opportunities.”
“If a new pandemic rolls around, we’re going to be really well prepared.”
Dr. Jagadeesh Reddy
48-year-old infectious disease physician Dr. Jagadeesh Reddy has helped care for nearly every coronavirus patient at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. He is grateful that he didn’t have to do it alone and that all of the hospital’s employees came together to work as a team.
“Housekeeping, food services, patient care technicians, the nurses, the docs and the respiratory therapists,” Reddy said. “Everyone sort of rose up and rose above their station and really put their lives at risk to really take care of patients.”
He added after their first patient was diagnosed with the virus many of the hospital’s staff got sick too. They also cared for the loved ones of staff.
“We actually had to take care of our own doctors and our own nurses that were pretty sick or even went to the ICU. It was very real for us,” Reddy said. “People that were really close to our heart, which also makes things a little bit more stressful.”
Reddy said he has taken less than a week off since the pandemic started to be there for his patients.
“There was a constant sort of scramble and every day brought a little bit more success. There was no opportunity to kind of really take a day off,” Reddy said.
He added that early on the methods for treating coronavirus patients were changing day to day but over time staff is slowly able to predict which patients will need a ventilator and intervene.
Reddy was training in New York during 9/11 and believed seeing the World Trade Center collapse would be the worst feeling he’d ever experience.
“This is almost worse, in the fact that, you’re watching patients sort of slowly drowning,” he said “It’s crippling to see and realize that that could be you in that bed or a family member.”
Dr. Sherrill Brown
Dr. Sherrill Brown became interested in infectious disease at an early age watching the AIDS epidemic that emerged in the 1980s.
“I was seeing all the fear and people being discriminated against because of their health status and really needing help. I wanted to from a very young age help the people that had HIV and try to cure them of HIV,” Brown said.
Brown is the medical director of infection prevention with AltaMed Health Services, the nation’s largest independent federally qualified community health center, and has been leading its response to the pandemic at clinics in Orange County and Los Angeles.
She is not only working with patients, she is also vaccinating people.
“I’ve never lived through a pandemic before,” Brown said. “This is something that we always think about and we train for but you’re never quite ready when it actually happens to you.”
She said it’s been a challenge to balance responding to the pandemic, taking care of patients and being a mom and a wife. She is grateful to her staff for all the support they have given her.
To take care of her mental health, Brown spends time with her family, exercises and has taken up a new hobby of making paper flowers.
Brown said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of prevention.
“We need to really do a better job of investing in prevention so that we have a lot of infrastructure in place for any future pandemics,” she said. “It’s incredibly important to prevent disease so that we don’t have the public health and the economic disaster that we’ve seen coming out of this pandemic.”
Dr. Amir Ghiassi
At some point during the pandemic the Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange was turning other beds into intensive care unit beds.
“We had a lot more ICU patients and critical care patients at one point,” said Dr. Amir Ghiassi. “We might have had the most number of COVID patients than anybody in the county at one point.”
Ghiassi is a 49-year-old pulmonologist working in the intensive care unit.
He said that the challenges of the pandemic were met not only by the tremendous team efforts of medical doctors, nurses, hospital staff and administration in Orange County but all over the world.
“They’re the real heroes. I take care of patients because it’s my job in the ICU but there are people who went above and beyond as well to do it,” he said.
For Ghiassi the biggest challenges were consoling family members of Coronavirus patients and seeing young people on ventilators who he didn’t expect to get sick.
“You learn this in medical school and you’re told this throughout your life, but you never want to see it: Pandemics do happen and can happen,” he said.
Ghiassi added that preparing for a pandemic is not a nuisance and the politicization of the virus did not do anything to help the situation in Orange County.
“At the end of the day, the virus doesn’t differentiate between a Republican or Democrat or a liberal or conservative,” he said.
“Due to the fact that there were so many different opinions, there was a lack of unity in trying to combat the virus with being able to do all the preventive measures, which is: shutting down places when they need to be shut down or wearing masks.”
Ghiassi added that people need to respect expert guidance when it comes to health care issues and how best to deal with them.
“We did everything we could in Orange County and the rest of the country to catch up but we could have probably had a better plan in place had we been more prepared.”
Dr. Philip Demman
As a kid, Dr. Philip Demman would go visit his father, who worked as one of the first cardiologists at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
Demman has followed in his dad’s footsteps, working as an anesthesiologist in the very same hospital for 25 years, helping care for people having surgery.
But when the pandemic first hit, elective surgery came to a halt and then again during the winter surge. So, Demman and others started helping out with Coronavirus patients.
“The most overwhelming part was seeing how sick our hospitalized COVID patients were and how critical they were and to be around that much morbidity was very tiring and emotionally draining but the way we really coped was working together and banding together,” Demman said.
He added that talking with other physicians, nurses and administrators helped medical workers realize they weren’t going through this alone.
“We had other people there helping us, supporting us and really caring for us just as much as we cared for the patients,” Demman said.
He added that he doesn’t feel like a hero but he worked with a lot of heroes including administrators, physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists.
“If it wasn’t for everybody working together, I think things would have been a lot worse,” Demman said. “I’m glad that I was able to help and I feel like making a difference was almost its own reward.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.