AUSTIN, Texas — In their weekly briefing on Tuesday, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Interim Medical Director and Health Authority for Austin Public Health Dr. Mark Escott were joined by a local doctor who shared her experiences with fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines.
Shailaja Hayden serves as a pulmonary and critical care physician in the ICUs of major hospitals here in Central Texas. She's also an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School.
As cases continue to rise and the threat that local hospitals could soon reach capacity looms, Dr. Hayden said frontline workers are tired – both emotionally and physically.
"I feel like we are working basically at capacity," she said. "We are working hard. And the idea that numbers could increase exponentially is really daunting."
Dr. Hayden said she has been working with COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began in March, including with the very first patient who tested positive in Austin.
"And pretty much every single day since then, I have either taken care of COVID patients, mourned for COVID patients ...," she said. "And our hospital systems and ICUs and worried about this nightmare scenario in which we truly are overwhelmed and unable to provide the usual excellent standard of care that we strive to give to everybody."
During the meeting, Dr. Hayden said she was sitting in the empty hospital room of a patient who had been fighting the virus for six weeks that, unfortunately, recently lost her battle.
"I'll say that this patient was actually someone who transferred to us from a town in West Texas because they were overwhelmed and had no ICU capacity to take care of her," she said. "And so at great risk to her own life, we put those unstable patients in a chopper and flew her hundreds of miles away from her family and support. And that's something that I don't want to see happening here in Austin."
She said the threat of having nowhere to transport patients and having to place them with less experienced staff in makeshift rooms is a "nightmare none of us want to come to."
"But we do have the power to affect this trajectory and to slow the spread of this disease," said Dr. Hayden. "And I would plead with everyone in our community to do the things that Judge Brown and Dr. Escott just mentioned to stay home when you can, to wear a mask, when you can, to stay distant from people, to wash your hands, to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our families and our entire communities."
Otherwise, she said the area could be in for a world of heartbreak.
"You know, what we're seeing is like a house fire. I mean, the suffering, the magnitude of suffering in the ICU right now is like nothing I have experienced before in that entire families are being ravaged at the same time by this disease," she said. "We've had so many instances where husband and wife or multiple generations, fathers, sons, siblings are all in the hospital at the same time. And alone, you know, being a COVID patient is an experience I would wish upon nobody in that there is a lot of suffering."
One of the hardest things she said she's had to witness is survivor's guilt
"And many, many times hearing from family members who think that they started that fire, that they were the one who potentially brought it home to their family, the guilt and grief in that belief," said Dr. Hayden. "And most of the time, we'll never know for sure who brought it to whom, but I do know that those people will live with that guilt for the rest of their lives, that their decision to attend that wedding or get dinner with a friend or grab that beer or whatever the decision may have been, may have led to the severe suffering and death of their loved ones."
Although the survival rate for younger coronavirus patients is high, Dr. Hayden and Dr. Escott also both touched on the fact that a stay in the hospital can still be life-changing.
"Your chances of surviving COVID-19 are really, really good, but there is still a chance you could have a hellish journey in the hospital before you recover that will change your life forever," said Dr. Hayden, adding that the youngest patient she has seen die from the virus was 25. "And so I would really put out a plea to the young people that a virtual holiday celebration is kind of lame, but a virtual funeral is heartbreak."
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