While some people (and state governments) have let their safety precautions fade as the pandemic rages on, health-care workers are still working around the clock to save lives. One such person is ER surgeon Mauricio Heilbron, MD, the vice chief of staff at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Long Beach, California.
Los Angeles is currently in the throes of a COVID-19 surge worse than what it had faced in previous months. NBC News reports that one person dies every six minutes from COVID-19 in the city. Here in conversation with Well+Good, Dr. Heilbron talks openly about what life is like working in the ER during COVID-19 in 2021, including the biggest challenges health-care professionals face, and dispelling misinformation about the virus and the vaccine he hears on a regular basis.
Well+Good: We are now one year into COVID-19 and Los Angeles is currently experiencing extremely high rates of infection. What is it like at the hospital right now?
Dr. Heilbron: It’s crushing. We are so full [with COVID-19 patients] that in addition to the intensive care unit, we are putting patients in every corner of the hospital that we can. We have an entire floor that has nothing but very sick COVID-19 patients. We turned rooms where we used to do colonoscopies into places where regular patients can safely be seen. Doctors have even started running outside to see [COVID-19] patients in the ambulances because we have no place to put them.
My job is as a trauma surgeon, general surgeon, and vascular surgeon. This means that I take every call for trauma surgery. Normally I do a handful of [trauma surgeries] a year, but now I’m doing one or two a day, and sometimes the patient dies so fast that I can’t even get there in time. One of the reasons for the increase in trauma surgeries is because COVID-19 has a wide variety of complications…What happens to [some COVID patients] is catastrophic. It annihilates their lungs, affects their heart, impacts circulation making their blood clog…The number of patients and the severity of their condition are hitting us all at once at levels we’ve never seen before.
What communities seem to be being affected most by COVID-19, that you are seeing?
MH: It’s affecting pretty much everybody. Where I live in Long Beach it’s a very diverse community, so at my hospital we get low-income people, high-income people, white people, Black people, Latinx people, Asian people…it’s hitting everybody. What I’ve also noticed is that the average age has started to trend down. The last COVID-19 patients I’ve had have ranged in age from 34 to 75 years old, and it’s getting a little younger.
In terms of safely and effectively being able to treat patients, what are the biggest challenges you and other health-care professionals are facing right now?
MH: We have been able to access PPE [personal protective equipment] because of the increase of production and distribution, so that isn’t the critical issue that it was before. But in the last couple of weeks, we have been very close to running out of adequate supplies for things like oxygen canisters or tubing that you use to connect people to ventilators or IVs. Somehow we’ve been able to keep up, but there is a sense of scrambling and we’re very close to running out.
The other biggest challenge is being overworked. Everyone including the doctors, nurses, respiratory technicians, and housekeepers are all exhausted, just trying to push through. I’ve taken four days off since February 2020 and I feel bad for just doing that. Nurses especially are overworked. They are having to take care of more patients than ever before at a higher level of severity than ever before. It’s just really, really hard.
How have you been taking care of your mental health?
MH: Well, you don’t. This is stressing me out to levels I have never experienced before. There have been a couple times that I’ve broken down and actually yelled at somebody in the hospital because I didn’t feel like they were doing their job properly. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, but it’s just an example of how we’re breaking. I know a lot of physicians who have given up and either left or retired early.
This is going to leave an emotional scar on pretty much everyone in the hospital. On top of this exhaustion, we are in a weird place in our country where some people see me as the bad guy. I was getting some coffee in my scrubs the other day and someone called me a sheep. People are yelling at me, telling me this whole thing is a hoax, and I’m just trying to keep people alive. And they don’t always survive. Just yesterday, one patient died before I got there in time and I just found out a few minutes ago that a patient I treated this morning died. I am not built for this. This is not why I went into medicine.
Are there still misconceptions about the virus people believe even now, one year into it?
MH: Yes, everywhere. There is a lot of misinformation on social media and it’s crippling us in health care. People just want to believe their preconceived set of ideas and that makes it very hard to reach people. There is still a lot of misinformation about how the virus is spread. A lot of people focus on hand-washing and cleaning surfaces. That’s important, but what’s even more important is staying six feet away from people and avoiding group settings, and the reason for this is because the way you get the virus is by breathing it in.
What about the new COVID-19 vaccines? Is there misinformation surrounding them that you want to take this opportunity to clear up?
MH: This is the first time the public at large is seeing how medical research is done. [Normally], it takes years, if not decades, to develop vaccines, drugs, and therapeutics. Normally it can’t be rushed, but there is this pressure right now to rush things. Because of this, we’ve developed the vaccine at unheard-of levels.
Let’s look at some hard numbers: When you look at the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 patients in each arm [of the study], meaning one arm gets the placebo and the other arm gets the vaccine. If you look at the tens of thousands of people in the study [who received the vaccine], did they get sick? No. What we can say right off the bat is that it’s safe.
These hoaxes that go around get perpetuated in these echo chambers and then spread like crazy. I [and] a lot of other doctors feel the way I do, but a lot of them are too tired to communicate, or they’re too pissed. I already got my two doses—that’s what I want people to know.
Watch the video below to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines:
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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