Months after Houston experienced its COVID-19 surge, Dr. Bindu Akkanti, MD, associate professor of critical care medicine with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, lost two patients within a short time. The emotional toll of this, coupled with the never-ending stress of the past few months, made her weary, and she didn't want to get out of bed to face another day in the ICU. However, her years of training took over, and Dr. Akkanti made it to work that day just as she has every day in the weeks and months since coronavirus became a part of our daily lives.
A short drive away from Houston's Texas Medical Center (TMC), Dr. Hina Pandya, Associate Vice President of Medical Operations with Memorial Hermann Medical Group, was gearing herself up for another long day of meetings, conference calls, and patient work. In charge of ambulatory care for the Memorial Hermann Medical Group, Dr. Pandya and her colleagues were tasked with creating COVID-19 screening protocols for all clinics, ensuring adequate PPE supplies, and continuously communicating with the over 300 physicians who look to her for guidance.
Drs. Pandya and Akkanti are just two of the hundreds of healthcare professionals in lockstep with the responsibility of not only caring for patients, but researching, teaching, and creating protocols that will save countless lives from a disease that didn't even exist a year ago. They are not only on the front lines facing COVID-19; they are in many cases the last line of defense against the disease, that as of this writing, has affected more than 200,000 people in the Houston area.
At the height of Houston's surge, both doctors were working 16-hour days trying to keep up with a pandemic that showed no sign of slowing down. They were concerned about taking the virus home to their families and troubled that they were only at the beginning of a battle that might overwhelm Houston's healthcare system. The beginning of July marked the onset of a surge as healthcare providers hunkered down in area hospitals and watched news stations broadcast images of people gathering to celebrate Independence Day on beaches. "On July 4, we had just started the night service at Memorial Hermann, and I got nine admissions from the ER back to back and five consults for ECMO from around the city," said Dr. Akkanti. "During the 12 hours of my shift, I don't think I got to sit down. Everyone working during that time was in a state of shell shock."
Fear of the unknown also plagued Dr. Pandya as patients began trickling into Houston clinics. For months her colleagues had been watching the news and seen posts on social media about the virus, but hadn't yet dealt with it firsthand. Rapidly emerging science, constant vigilance, and communication with physicians about the virus have since quelled fears. "We know so much more about how to prevent spread, and I feel very comfortable with the protocols we have put in place," she says. "My biggest concern is that people are going to go back to their lives the way they were before the virus, and we can't do that yet. We can't let our guard down."
Dr. Akkanti agrees that the fight against COVID-19 isn't over. For her, the biggest misconception is that many think they won't contract the virus themselves. She points out that as long as people are dying of COVID-19 in the community, it affects everyone. "We were prepared to see a lot of older people with comorbidities in the hospital, but the sad thing is that most of the patients we are seeing are between the ages of 35 – 55 years old," she says.
These healthcare professionals are just two of the many front line heroes at TMC, the world's largest medical center. They have utilized their medical knowledge and employed compassion, empathy, and resilience to create a bridge between families and patients who are on their own because of hospital visitation rules. "When you are standing in front of a patient who isn't able to get oxygen, you just hope that all your training is going to help you save this one person so that you can get them back to their family," said Akkanti. "Because of the advances we have made, we are in a much better position to take care of patients, and we work hard every day to make sure that medicine is better than it was the day before."
At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like we had a call to arms and this was our war. It was affecting people across the globe; it was in Houston and we were ready. Dr. Bindu Akkanti