Health Workers’ Experiences on the Frontline

3 mins read

Illustration by Kari Trail

As COVID-19 continues to spread, doctors, nurses, and technicians are finding that they are being asked to take on the emotional turmoil of a mentally taxing job.  

Kimberly Dalal, a general surgeon with a specialization in cancer surgery, recalled her experience dealing with the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Dalal described that when news of the outbreak was first surfacing, and the shelter in place order was first instituted, she was “on general surgery call.” That day, she was asked to see a high risk patient, for whom the doctors were attempting to rule out COVID-19, but were still unsure. She described that the hospital wanted her to “become more involved since they may have needed surgery.” Dalal continued, “I was scared, I was very anxious, because at that point I hadn’t yet been taught how to wear the proper PPE [personal protective equipment]: the special masks or a hood, needed for potential exposure. There is a very specific way to put it on and take it off without infecting yourself, and nobody had really been trained yet.”

“That first weekend I started out so scared and concerned, thinking ‘oh my god I’m going to become infected and I’m going to die.’ I was calling my sister and crying, but then by the end of that weekend, I felt very comfortable that I could safely take care of someone with COVID-19.” Dalal added that she feels that the camaraderie within the surgical team increased in the early stages of the pandemic, as her and her colleagues would “talk, every night for an hour. We would share information, anything we had learned from research, and so it’s really brought us together as a group.”  

Dalal said that “it’s very stressful because you really don’t want to infect your family, so it has been important to come right home, go straight to the shower, think about what to do with your shoes and clothes, and just try to make sure that your hands are always clean.”

Chris White, an Emergency Department physician, said that the largest change in his workplace routine is “the constant fluidity and the uncertainty.” White explained that toward the beginning of the pandemic, “our days off weren’t really days off; we were still working, we just weren’t seeing patients. We would be setting up [triage] tents and getting patient flow ironed out, and waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘have we thought of everything?’” White explained that in the Emergency Department, they act as if “everyone is potentially infected, from my perspective, and my personal health.”

Jenny Wan, an interventional and diagnostic radiologist, said that the most notable difference in her personal life is “definitely a lot more meticulous care in hygiene.” She said, “There’s part of my time where I can be safely in a reading room with minimal patient contact, but the other half of the time, I’m doing procedures on patients back to back throughout the day. On a normal day-to day basis I’m normally pretty cognizant of protection because of my experience doing procedures. But now, I’d say the difference is from just leaving the house to coming home there’s so much thought about what I’m touching, that’s not something I would have to think about as much when we’re talking about bloodborne pathogens.” Wan said that she is “thankful that she has a medical background and knows what a sterile technique [for performing everyday tasks is].” She continued, saying that a certain amount of “low level anxiety” is routine in the medical field and “something that’s always in the back of [her] mind.” 

Ultrasound technician Carrie Azzopardi said, “At work we wear a mask and goggles if we are helping patients, N-95 masks if we are working with any patients who are COVID positive or POIs [person under investigation].” Azzopardi explained, “Of course my family is worried since I go to work every day. They worry about my safety, but for me, although I’m afraid to get the virus myself, this is my job, this is my career, and what I chose to do for a living and it’s important to me. No matter what, I need to be there taking care of patients, even if I’m afraid.”

She continued, “The biggest change is probably the fear. When I come home, I go from working in this medical environment to watching the news for a couple more hours.” Azzopardi explained that her biggest fear is “definitely the fear of the unknown.”

According to The New York Times, there have been a confirmed 40,357  COVID-19 cases in San Mateo County as of March 30th, 2021. There have been 547 fatalities due to the virus. Azzopardi concluded, “I think it’s just important to recognize the people who go to work every day, not because they’re getting a paycheck, but because they truly are in it to help people; they want to be there, and be part of the whole system that is helping people who are sick and afraid.” 

Brynn Baker is a senior and a third-year journalist with the Chronicle. She looks forward to covering issues that are relevant to both her local community as well as the larger, national scale.

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