One year later, frontline workers battle COVID-19

World Today

Nearly a year after the Denver Health Medical Center received its first COVID-19 patient, the head of the intensive care unit here is feeling reflective.

“Well, I think that the American pandemic has been a very uniquely American phenomenon,” says Dr. Ivor Douglas, Director of Critical Care at Denver Health Medical Center.

He says it’s demonstrated both the technological capabilities of this country’s health care system and the racism in U.S. society that have alternately saved and cost lives. The pandemic, he adds, struck like a tsunami for which we were ill-prepared.

“I certainly, at a personal level, felt most strained and inadequate and humbled about our challenges.”

We first met Douglas virtually last April as he coped with delays in the testing of patients for the coronavirus and confronted this menacing new disease.

“This is personal, this is invasive, and it’s invisible.”

In November, he spoke about pandemic fatigue and pleaded for people to avoid in-person gatherings right before a new surge of cases. 

“A Thanksgiving over Zoom is far preferable to a Christmas in my ICU lying on a stomach on a ventilator.”

Now, just two patients infected with COVID-19 are in his ICU. Instead, the ward is full of people with drug overdoses, cold exposure and heart disease.

“The impact on our society is as profound as the infection itself and in many cases as lethal.”

He says it’s time for leaders to address what’s broken in health care today.

“I actually think we’re at a transformative moment. Would that have happened without COVID-19? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect probably not.”

Douglas says the pandemic tested him and his colleagues in ways they couldn’t have imagined. He’s grateful to those in his profession who put their lives on the line.

“I would never assume that I knew what a war zone was because I’ve never been in the military, but if I could imagine what a civilian war zone looks like this is as close as I could imagine.”

He thinks about certain patients, whether they could have been saved.

“Sadly there’s one family that sticks with me forever where four members of the family were in the hospital at the same time, and two died.”

He thinks about the isolation felt by those he treated.

“To have a number of patients die alone that I have had the burden/responsibility to care for I think will be the thing that sticks with me forever.”

He hopes lessons can be learned from this difficult year and applied to future pandemics he believes are inevitable. He says he’s optimistic that can happen.