The impact of COVID-19 surrounds Dr. Neera Ahuja every time she goes to work at Stanford Hospital, where moderately and seriously ill patients with the virus lay in hospital beds fighting to overcome the disease.
Ahuja and the staff she oversees work long hours to try to help these patients. And she knows that each time she or another staff member interacts with a patient, they also risk becoming infected by the highly contagious virus. The spectre of infection is on the minds of everyone she encounters. But she said she's invigorated by the dedication of her colleagues, their ability to push through exhaustion and fear, their willingness to take on extra loads of responsibility and the hope for potential treatments, which she is a part of trying to find.
"The first time I had to walk into a room with a patient who potentially had COVID-19 was three weeks ago," Ahuja said during a recent phone interview. "The test turnaround was longer then. The patient was very symptomatic."
On the drive home, she thought about what could happen if she brought the virus to her family. Ahuja has young children and an elderly mother-in-law.
"This is so surreal," she recalled thinking.
The patient turned out to be negative for the coronavirus, she said, but the concern is still on everyone's mind. Stanford is caring for dozens of COVID-19 patients, and a few medical providers have developed symptoms or have been quarantined.
As chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine, Ahuja must help prepare the hospital for any reduction in staffing due to sickness or quarantine, if staff test positive but have no symptoms.
Protective gear — gowns, masks, gloves, goggles or face shields — can do only so much. The emotional toll on the 44 faculty members she oversees is one of the most difficult things she must deal with, she said.
"It's hitting them hard. Seeing the emotional struggle of my colleagues ... there's a lot of anxiety," she said.
Ahuja said she also is urging staff to take personal time and to get enough rest so there is balance in their lives and they can avoid burnout — a difficult task in a crisis.
The hospital environment has changed because of COVID-19, she said. Everything is more remote. There's no lingering in the hallway to talk, as staff seek to reduce contact that could spread the disease.
"I'm in Zoom meetings all day long," Ahuja said.
No one truly understood how fast COVID-19 would come on, she stated in a March 27 medicine perspective in Medline Magazine. The hospital had a large surge of non-COVID patients in November and December, which got staff thinking about how to gear up for the coronavirus if it came to the area.
In January, they had more conversations about which wards would be designated for coronavirus patients, but it wasn't until March 10 that the hospital received its first confirmed COVID-19 patients. Then, everything went into high gear, she said.
The hospital started preparing for how it would function if there was a surge of patients — and how it would function if staffing was down 40% or even 70%. Some other hospitals have already seen a 40% decrease in staff, she said.
Medical students, who have been removed from the clinical setting to protect them from the disease, are volunteering in many other ways to help existing staff, she said. They've offered to help with carrying supplies and babysitting children of faculty, who can then be freed up to work.
Ahuja is also the principal investigator of an experimental drug trial for remdesivir, which could be used to fight the virus. If the global trial is successful, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could approve the drug's use in a month or two for moderately and seriously ill patients, she said.
Being on the forefront of hope is exhilarating, she said.
"The wonderful thing is the science. Without scientific research, there is no way to know where we would go," she said.
This profile originally appeared in the April 10 print edition of the Weekly and is part of our ongoing series, "Ordinary people, extraordinary times," capturing the stories of locals during the coronavirus crisis. Read more of their stories through the links below:
To view the series on one page, visit multimedia.paloaltoonline.com.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.