The coronavirus patient at North Houston Hospital reportedly saw the nurse’s iris move to the doctor who replaced an IV in the groin, now stained with blood. She moans. The nurse leaned toward him.
“Hold my hand, you’re almost done,” said Jerusha Harshman, pushing her like a mother to a moaning child. ” I know. “
Staff barely spoke while caring for the elderly African American patient, who contracted the virus during dialysis and lives in a nursing home. When they spoke, they raised their voices above the echoes of their masks, face shields and hoods.
It was the 30th day for doctors and nurses in the COVID-19 unit at the United Memorial Medical Center.
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Their work forms a small part of the Houston coronavirus response, but they have become recognized due to relentless efforts to help curb the pandemic here. The hospital was the first to offer a free driving test site and to set up free tests elsewhere with the help of US representative Sheila Jackson Lee. They received donations from Beyonce.
After leaving the elderly woman’s bedside, the team hit each part of the wing for her rounds, usually making sure the patients were stable and sometimes performing lung scans. When they finished the small stage of their marathon, they crossed a plastic partition at the end of the corridor and closed it behind them, coming out of a different world.
It was only then that they took off their sweaty helmets, loosened the coveralls that closed their necks and breathed deeply.
“It’s difficult,” said nurse Tanna Ingraham. “It’s physically difficult, it’s mentally difficult. It’s exhausting. “
She couldn’t exchange it if she wanted to.
“We are all they have,” she said. “From the moment they intervene, it’s only us. “
Removed from the hustle and bustle of Texas Medical Center, the private, for-profit hospital is located in Acres Homes, one of Houston’s most diverse and low-income neighborhoods. His patients reflect the surrounding community – although not all of them are from the immediate area – in a zip code with some of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the area.
One day at the end of April, the manufacture of the COVID-19 intensive care wing: six black patients and three Hispanic or Latino. They are day laborers, residents of nursing homes, health professionals.
Seven other people in the COVID-19 non-intensive care wing were also all people of color.
The chief of staff, Dr Joseph Varon, recalled that the unit had only admitted three white patients since its opening, reflecting the fact that the deadly virus hits minorities hardest. According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Joseph Gathe, age varies widely and around 70% of the people they see do not have underlying conditions.
Varon is particularly concerned about the health of young black men who pass through the hospital. He saw reports that the people were released after being treated or refused to care for their loved ones, but that she died when she returned home.
“Young African-American men are falling dead,” he said. ” I do not know why. “
Varon wants answers, even if he doesn’t have much time to guess. He wants to save lives – and since May 2, he says that no one died in his hospital.
The pulmonologist treats his patients with a cocktail of steroids, thinners and vitamin C, and they are all on Hydroxochloroquine, the controversial antimalarial drug touted by President Donald Trump and dismissed by many in the medical field for its lack of research. He said it worked “like a charm.”
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Some doctors in the medical community, however, questioned Varon’s treatments, adding that they should be considered experimental and unproven. Hydroxychloroquine is known to have heart risks, and vitamin C treatments have never been demonstrated in controlled studies for the benefit of patients, said Dr. Robert Atmar, professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.
Steroids have also been linked to causing more harm than good, said Atmar, and it is not clear whether blood thinners are needed for all COVID-19 patients.
Varon countered criticism. For the United Memorial patients, he said, the treatments worked. Some of them were ventilated and survived, and even more experienced pulmonary clotting, he said. Almost 50 people were treated in the unit.
“Regardless of what everyone else says, if the results are 100% survival, I will continue to use them,” he said in an email. “Most importantly, our protocols are based on science, not politics. “
Varon is researching vitamin C treatments in particular, and he and his staff believe this is what prevents so many of their patients from withdrawing from the airways.
“We are literally throwing them the kitchen sink,” he said. “Look at their survival rates. “
Gathe cites the example of a 90-year-old former patient. Sitting with Varon in the hospital waiting room, he held up a photo of the woman who had metastatic colon cancer but had beaten the coronavirus. Wearing a face mask, she sat in a wheelchair and held up a sign that said “Nice try Covid … I survived! “
“She deployed the front door,” said Gathe.
More than two dozen people were released from the hospital after successful battles against the disease. But in the midst of the Houston virus, the establishment admitted people at a brisk pace.
The hospital has a capacity of 20 people in the Covid intensive care unit and 26 to 38 patients in the non-intensive Covid unit, both of whom are separated from the rest of the facility. On both wings, 16 people took beds that day in April, said Varon.
United Memorial is not like the New York stories – this hospital has a lot of PPE and was not yet completely full – but for a short-staffed unit with only two nurses and a handful of doctors, all influx of patients can make a long shift. Varon and his colleagues welcomed four new patients the previous evening.
“Last night was a hell of a night,” said Varon during his rounds.
Jermon Robertson was one such patient and, like everyone else in his hallway, he had pneumonia. Doctors told the 27-year-old that the disease caused clots to form around his heart, but he seemed to be doing better than some of his neighbors, who could not even speak. Robertson could walk freely in his room and he could sit when the doctors checked him out.
However, COVID-19 was a very different result from what he expected after coming to the hospital for an apparent spider bite.
Robertson, who is black, had not suspected the disease. He was not necessarily surprised either when his test came back positive, as he had taken three buses a day out of necessity.
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“It was a great possibility,” he said. “You never know who you’re going to. “
On the other side of the corridor, Juan Carlos Peña, 43, collapsed in his bed, covered with blankets. He had barely touched the soup, apple juice and the Cheerios on his side table.
He spent a week at home with fever and body pain before being admitted. He was coughing while speaking, but said he had already experienced improvement after less than a day at the hospital.
Peña was relieved to be well looked after, he said, but he felt lonely. He had no phone and only knew that his wife had called the hospital for updates.
“It really hurts not being able to see your family,” said Peña. “You are starting to think that you may not see them again. “
Nothing in the room could really remind him of his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 5. He had a plastic bag containing his clothes and belongings, tied up and resting on a high shelf.
To make the rooms a little friendlier, the nurses recorded paintings of flowers and hearts on the wall in front of Pena’s bed.
In the writing for nurse Ingraham’s daughter, it read, “Get well soon.”
Other members of the unit marked longer stays and, like Peña, they knew everything about solitary combat.
Thomas Rubio has no phone or family to watch him. When the doctors entered his room, he straightened up, his curly hair sticking out from under the straps of his mask and his eyes narrowed in the corners with a smile.
Rubio, 54, has never seen people take care of him, but he knows what they look like from the printed photos they stick on their chest.
He finds it difficult to recount some of the details that led him to the hospital. He remembers a burning sensation in the neck – “It’s like someone threw acid in my face” – and went to the emergency room. Rubio left without being seen, only to wake up in prison on drunk driving. He was released on bail and took a bus back home, he said.
He held up a sign to a neighbor with his ex-partner’s phone number, and they brought him to the hospital. After a few days, Rubio had sores all over his neck and legs but was finally starting to feel better.
“They saved me,” said Rubio.
After reviewing each patient’s case with Varon – the last part of their tour – the staff members relaxed. Ingraham placed his arm over Harshman’s head, and the other wrapped his arm around Ingraham’s waist, forming a knot.
Harshman laughed with Varon for a minute and begged him to find more nurses the next. She and Ingraham are the only two nurses on the unit, and they’re not technically employed at the United Memorial Medical Center – these are Varon’s friends, who he called after most of his nurses took paid leave .
They said they would not be there if they did not believe everything the hospital did. The two have worked 14 to 16 hour shifts with rare days off, and Varon works 20 hour days.
This could be a problem for them if there is a second peak and a larger wave of cases in the fall.
“We’re going to need nurses,” said Gathe. “It will be a labor problem. “
The most the nurses could do was try to sleep when they could. While her colleagues were having lunch in the break room, Harshman stopped to say that she would be taking a nap. But over the course of the minutes, she rushed down the hall, complying with tasks that would prevent her from resting.
They were expecting five more patients.
“Even if we are tired, we are faithful,” said Harshman. ” Its a story. “
Todd Ackerman contributed to this report.