Ursuline Physician-Parents Discuss the Pandemic

During today’s pandemic, medical professionals occupy the front lines. We want to honor and thank them for all they do. In particular, we think of the doctors, nurses and everyone else involved with healthcare who are members of the Ursuline community. Here are some perspectives and stories on the pandemic shared by three physicians who are also Ursuline parents.

Most people know that the coronavirus attacks the lungs. But COVID-19 also damages the kidneys, organs that Dr. Miguel Vazquez, a nephrologist and senior dad, specializes in. “What is very surprising is that the virus is actually in the kidney,” he said, “which is not common for viruses.”

Finding the virus inside kidney cells shows the damage can be direct. Indirectly, the kidneys may not receive enough oxygen or blood from the virus’s other victims, the lungs and heart. Clots, seen more in COVID-19 patients, can also clog the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys. According to the BBC, over 20% of coronavirus ICU patients experience kidney failure. Treatment for kidney shutdown is dialysis, where a machine takes over the cleaning and filtering of the blood.

Dr. Miguel Vazquez
Courtesy of UT Southwestern

Dr. Vazquez currently treats COVID-19 patients. However, most of his patients don’t have the virus. “In dialysis units, we follow 100 percent of precautions, even though patients should not be infected,” Dr. Vazquez said. “When we get closer to interact with [COVID-19] patients, then we wear more PPES, from N95s to shields to gowns to covers.”

Dr. Ronney Stadler said, “We could have difficulty with an adequate supply of N95 masks and protective gowns if our number of patients with COVID-19 increases over the next few weeks.” A colon and rectal surgery specialist, he contributes to discussions on hospital committees about preparing for an increase in DFW-area cases.

However, local hospitals have enough PPE right now, said Dr. Stadler, an alumna, senior and freshman dad. Dr. Vazquez has experienced the same. “Both hospitals where I work, Clements University and Parkland, have been well-prepared to protect their staff,” he said.

Dr. Susan J. Sickler
Courtesy of Willow Bend Pediatrics

As a pediatrician in group practice in Plano, Dr. Susan J. Sickler hasn’t had the same PPE availability. “We had a lot of trouble in the beginning,” she said. “We paid up to $20 an N95 mask, and normally those go for 30 cents.” It wasn’t until around two weeks past Spring Break that she and her four partners had enough for themselves and their staff at Willow Bend Pediatrics. Even still, they have to reuse masks.

Dr. Sickler’s practice accepts well visits and if they can’t be done by telemedicine, sick visits too. Every incoming patient is screened for COVID-19 by phone. If a patient exhibits symptoms, they are seen by telemedicine. Willow Bend doesn’t have enough PPE to allow COVID-positive patients into the clinic or do testing. However, they can’t test yet anyway. Due to backlogs and hospital priority, her practice can’t get testing capability for two months or longer. Out of about 15,000 active patients across the entire practice, only five likely have the virus, said Dr. Sickler. But there could be more due to children tending to be asymptomatic for COVID-19.

Besides the wait for testing, Dr. Sickler’s practice is also on the hunt for hand sanitizer. “We tried to get sanitizer from a cleaning company, [but] it was very harsh sanitizer that was hurting our hands,” she said, laughing. Although someone made homemade sanitizer, the practice is struggling to keep all 16 of their rooms stocked.

Sanitizer bottles aren’t the only thing at Dr. Sickler’s clinic that are emptier now. On a busy afternoon before the coronavirus hit, Willow Bend’s waiting room could have as many as 60 people inside. With the precautions in place now, there’s eight at most.

Dr. Ronney Stadler
Courtesy of Texas Colon & Rectal Specialists

Like Dr. Sickler, Dr. Stadler has had a decrease in patients. Although Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on non-emergent procedures ended April 21, elective surgeries haven’t returned to normal yet. “It will take several months before we are at full speed,” Dr. Stadler said.

Dr. Sickler, who sees 25% to 30% of her regular number of patients, does a quarter of her visits using telemedicine. “My view [on telemedicine] was a little negative before,” she said. “For pediatrics, a lot of what we do, you have to see if they have an ear infection or strep and guessing over the Teladoc I didn’t think was a good service.” But her opinion has become more positive as it’s given her patients peace of mind during the pandemic and worked well for complaints like rashes.

Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the medical industry, all three doctors expect an upswing in telemedicine use. “[Doctors are] all realizing, oh yeah, there is a reason to be able to use telemedicine,” Dr. Sickler said.

Dr. Vazquez believes that attention will refocus towards the public health sector. “There will be advancements in vaccine development, treatments [and disease] vectors,” he said. He draws a contrast between the use of technological tools like ventilators and dialysis machines in hospitals and “less exciting,” yet unexpectedly important, contact tracing. “There will be a realignment of priorities,” he said.

On the patient side, Dr. Sickler said she hopes that acceptance and trust of vaccines will increase. “We’ll see the vaccine for [COVID-19] dramatically change how we can live our lives and feel comfortable…how the economy can really open up and we can trust each other not to have it again,” she said.

Dr. Sickler herself has somewhat uprooted her living situation to minimize contact with her husband and 15-year-old son who both have bad asthma. She still lives in the house but stays six to ten feet away from everyone else, including eating dinner at a separate table. The family manages to play games together after finding a separate set of dice for her. “It makes me a little sad,” she said. “My twins just had a birthday and I wasn’t physically close to them on their birthday.”

The pandemic has dealt hardship, great and slight, to everyone. Obligated to be in a hospital every day, Dr. Stadler has also been the one not allowed in. “My mother died [in April] after a long battle with cancer,” he said. “She was in the hospital for several days and no visitors were allowed.” Instead of a funeral Mass, they were only allowed burial rites led by a deacon with nine family members present. “That aspect of the pandemic, that we could not engage in our normal Catholic rituals and sacraments at the time of a great family loss, will stick with me and my family for some time,” he said.

During this tough time, we want to find hope. “It has been without a doubt an incredible tragedy for so many families and individuals,” Dr. Vazquez said, “but on the other hand, we have seen also so many people helping others…you see that there is a lot of good out there.”

Dr. Sickler also finds hope in the hard work of vaccine researchers, one of them her former teacher at Baylor University. “Normally, they do the vaccine production in a certain consecutive fashion. [Now] they’re doing all phases of the testing at once to try and get this vaccine out as fast as they can,” she said. Science will be the “ultimate solution,” as Dr. Vazquez worded it.

But there’s something else that can get many of us through this time: faith. “We’re not always in control as humans,” Dr. Sickler said. “We rely on our knowledge in science, but then also have faith and hope.”

Featured image courtesy of The Dallas Morning News (Staff Photographer Ryan Michalesko)

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