‘We're fighting a war’: UCLA ER doctor feels unprepared for coronavirus pandemic

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UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. Photo credit: UCLA Health.

The number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 has nearly doubled in LA County since Friday. There are now some 90 Angelenos in medical care. 

More than 500 Angelenos have tested positive, and that number is expected to rise. 

Dr. Lisa Dabby, an emergency room doctor at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, says she’s never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s been practicing emergency medicine for almost 20 years. 

“Things are changing not only by the day, but by the hour in terms of workflow. We're trying to adjust as influx increases. It's scary. This is the first time I've ever taken care of patients who have a virus that we really know nothing about, which I think adds a lot of fear and anxiety to both patients and healthcare workers. And it does it feels like we're fighting a war,” she says.

Dr. Lisa Dabby. Courtesy of Dabby. 

KCRW: As a mom, what's it like coming home after working 10 hours? How do you make sure your family's safe? 

Dabby: “I actually asked my husband if I can move out, because I wanted to protect my husband and my kids. I didn't want to expose them to this virus. And he said no. So I'm trying my best. 

I'm changing my clothes before I leave work. I am heading straight to the shower when I get home. I am not bringing my cell phone into work. I'm really trying hard to not contaminate anything from work and bring it home. Because my biggest fear is not just me getting sick, but potentially bringing this virus home to my loved ones. And I think a lot of emergency doctors around the country are facing that struggle right now.” 

What kind of conversations have you had with your family about the work you're doing? 

“My kids ... I've been just trying to reassure them that we're all going to be OK.  ... I don't want them to be scared, but I've had real conversations. 

My husband -- there's no reason for both of us to go down, is what I tell him.It's one thing if I get sick, but the kids need two parents or at least one parent. And it's a real conversation that a lot of people are having with their spouses right now. 

There are emergency physicians on ventilators in ICUs right now, and it can happen to any one of us. This virus does not discriminate. Older people do have a higher mortality [rate], but young people are getting really sick and ending up on life support. So I've had some real meaningful conversations with my family about wishes should anything happen to me.”  

A lot of attention has turned to younger folks being infected, turning up in ERs. Are you seeing that?

“Absolutely. On my last shift, I saw two people, one in their 30s and one in their 40s, who came in and could not breathe. They ended up testing positive for COVID, and it put the biggest pit in my stomach to see young people with no medical problems not being able to finish their sentences because they couldn't breathe. It was really horrifying.”  

What are you seeing that you're not prepared for?  

“What I'm not prepared for is the fear of running out of protective equipment. What I'm not prepared for is this possibility that we're gonna get so overwhelmed that we don't have enough ventilators to take care of the patients who need it.  

… I don't think I can go take care of patients without the right protective equipment. It makes no sense to me to put all of our lives at risk and then not be able to take care of thousands and thousands of patients if we get sick.”

She says she’s seen the decisions physicians in Italy have been forced to make because there aren’t enough resources:

“I hope that I never, ever have to make a decision of who gets put on a ventilator. I've always been trained to help everybody to our fullest ability, and I hope to never have to choose who lives and who dies. … That terrifies me. That is not something that I was ever trained to do.”

What’s the most important thing for LA residents to know right now about this pandemic? 

COVID-19 is not the common flu -- that’s what Dabby wants to make clear.

“I've seen it now. It's real. It causes people to get very sick, very quickly. It does not discriminate between young and old.  .... It can take any one of us down. 

And my plea would be … if everybody could do their part. If everybody could socially distance themselves and use good hygiene, we should be able to overcome this.   … It's not just the health care workers who have to fight this fight. Every individual has to empower themselves and take it seriously. It's not going to work if we don't all do our part. 

Credits

Guest:
Lisa Dabby - Emergency room doctor at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel, Rebecca Mooney

Reporter:
Jesse Hardman