Dr. Roozbeh Sharif, 43
Title: Pulmonologist and critical care specialist, Medical Center of Southeast Texas
Location: Port Arthur, Texas
In the summer of 2020, Dr. Sharif worked at a hospital in Corpus Christi that experienced a huge surge in COVID-19 patients. He contracted COVID-19 just after his first child was born.
As told to Ruben Castaneda as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What’s been your most memorable experience?
On July 13, I was working in Corpus Christi and personally seeing 55 patients on ventilators, most with COVID-19. We had over 150 total patients in our intensive care unit. My wife was 33 weeks pregnant, in Houston, when she texted me that she was just diagnosed with preeclampsia and had to go to straight to the hospital.
I drove the three-plus hours to Houston while receiving phone calls from my team. When you’re on the front lines of a crisis, you’ve got to be there. I essentially had to be the quarterback for the team. I could get a text message at any time to help with a patient who was struggling, who was about to die.
I made it to Houston in time for my daughter’s birth. When Vivian was born, I thought ‘This is it — this is the circle of life.’ It was the best moment of my life while I was still living in a COVID ocean.
I stayed there for 12 hours. When I got back to Corpus Christi, I started feeling very sick, drained and fatigued. I was tested for COVID-19.
A Scary Diagnosis
On July 16, I was driving when I got a phone call that my test was positive. The infectious disease doctor said I needed to go to the hospital ASAP. I stepped into the emergency department and a nurse asked right away, ‘Dr. Sharif, what’s wrong? You don’t look good.’ They checked my oxygen levels, and they’d dropped below 90%. Less than 88% is considered dangerous. That’s when I got scared.
I had seen patients in the same room I was admitted to. They started giving me medication, and finally I was able to sleep. I didn’t even have the energy to get up and go to the bathroom.
The first day was the toughest. As a doctor I’d thought about how difficult it would be to be confined to a room and not be able to see anybody. Now I was that patient. For the first 24 hours, it was an exceptionally frightening experience. I had my cellphone, and I checked my life insurance to make sure the payments were up to date. The reality is a lot of patients healthier than me, younger than me, had died. I felt that everything can go wrong very fast.
I received convalescent plasma, remdesivir and dexamethasone, which at the time was an experimental treatment for COVID-19.
The second day, I felt much better, my respiratory symptoms improved. So, I began seeing patients through telehealth from my hospital bed. I saw patients every day for seven days while I was hospitalized with COVID.
Both Patient and Doctor
A nurse took a robot equipped with a camera to the rooms of patients so I could see them on a laptop.
I told some patients I was a patient, too. I was impressed — some of them talked to me as a peer. They would ask how I’m feeling, where is my family. They weren’t talking about themselves anymore. We have a large Hispanic population, some don’t speak English very well. We’d use a translator. Some of the patients who couldn’t speak English very well gave me the thumbs up to encourage me.
I stayed in the hospital as a patient for seven days and six nights. I saw patients every day except the first.
During my first few hours as a patient, I had to teach myself not to ask the doctors a lot of questions, to just let them do what they need to do. The experience of being a patient has made me much more understanding of what patients go through.
Before, I would just give them the clinical information. Now, I take my white coat off and say, ‘I am husband, I am a son, I am a brother — what do you need? What can I do for you?’
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