LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor has worked the COVID-19 floor of Jewish Hospital since March 17. She's the medical director for the Hospitalist program for UofL Health, which in short, means more administrative work.
But the week Jewish Hospital opened up its first COVID-19 floor, she was back at the bedside and she hasn't left it since.
"I’m hanging in there. I‘m tired," she said. "Our numbers just keep going up. We expected January to be a tough month."
Dr. Val, as she's known, was one of UofL Health's very first doctors to receive the vaccine. It was then, she spoke about the loss of life she's witnessed these last 10 months.
Before the pandemic, she might have lost four patients in a year. On the day of her first Pfizer dose, Dr. Val learned her 27th patient had died of the virus. That was Dec. 14, 2020.
We sat down with her nearly a month later and that number had increased to 37.
"WHEN I THINK OF THAT NUMBER, I TEAR UP"
"I have a list that I keep in my office. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me of the now 37 families who don’t have their loved ones anymore," Dr. Val said. "To have that many deaths in less than a year and it’s frightening that this is what it did."
She reminded us her number was for a non-ICU COVID floor, knowing many of her colleagues working in the ICU were likely witnessing death at a much higher rate.
"I used to have the first ten memorized, and I would say them over and over again especially when I went to church. But there’s just so many, I can’t remember them all," Dr. Val said.
Jewish Hospital first had room for 15 beds back in March. Today, it's using 3 units for COVID patients totaling 45 beds. Another 22 beds are expected to open up this week.
"People just don’t understand. That all those horror stories that are happening in other parts of the world are happening here in our hospitals," Dr. Val said.
She said one thing that keeps her going is trying to celebrate little victories in the midst of the chaos.
"I had one gentleman who wasn’t doing well and I told him he’s going to the ICU. He begged me not to send him," Dr. Val. "I said, 'I need you to go to the ICU, but I need you to come back to me.' And he did. He came back to me a few days later, and when I saw him, the two of us started to cry."
THE HARDEST OF DAYS
"We’ve had some for days if not weeks before they passed away. We developed relationships with them," Dr. Val said. "The nursing staff who are with them 12 hours a day, they took the bulk of it."
"I had my first husband and wife pass away. He passed away on Monday – she a couple days later," Dr. Val said. Both were in their 80's.
"I also had a patient who begged his nurse not to leave him. We were sending him to the ICU and he didn’t want to be alone. She stayed in that room until a respiratory therapist came in to help him to the ICU and she just came out crying and we cried with her. He passed away in the ICU."
WHEN FAMILY CAN'T BE THERE
"That’s been the hardest part of this job, trying to communicate what the patient is going through to their loved ones," Dr. Val said. "And what they’re going through sometimes is suffering and the only thing I can do is make them comfortable in their last days."
Jewish Hospital started Zooming with family 2 to 3 months into the pandemic, but before that, the main communication was over a phone call.
"I was driving home yesterday, and thinking, how did we come to that? That our loved ones are having to watch their loved ones die over Zoom?"
Her team of doctors and nurses spent one morning together on the rooftop of the hospital, writing names of the patients they'd lost on rocks and dropping each one into a jar of water. A way to remember, a moment to feel the pain and sadness with those who felt the same.
"They keep that jar of rocks on our unit and with the patients we just recently lost, they add more to it."
"THE DAY I'LL NEVER FORGET"
"I had a Catholic priest from an outbreak at a local nursing home. He was one of 13, and four who died. We just prayed and held hands, because that’s all we could do and his family couldn’t be there," Dr. Val said.
Visitors weren't allowed, but Dr. Val says she remembers making an urgent phone call to have another priest come to her floor, so her patient could be read his last rites.
"We just stood around, in this moment of chaos that was going on around us. We had other patients who were also not doing well, but for that five or 10 minutes, we were all in that room and it was peaceful. I thought, 'Wow, this is what I needed in this moment,'" she said.
"Every time I have a patient pass away, I think of that moment when we were standing around Father’s room as he took his last breaths."
"IF WE ALL WORK TOGETHER"
"The good news, despite all this - and my list of 37 - I send more patients home than I keep," Dr. Val said. "And I think I’m in it for the long haul, until this is over. Because I want to see this end."
She says it will take a community effort to get us there.
"I’m afraid that people are tired just like I am, but we can’t let our guard down, not yet."
"We still don’t know the long-term effects of COVID. You may have had a mild case. But we don’t know really what that’s done to your lungs or your heart. I have a gentleman who had COVID in August and he’s back with me now and he’s still suffering, with fibrosis from his lungs and heart failure, things he didn’t have before COVID. He asks me every day, 'Why am I still feeling this way?' He asks me, 'When am I going to get better?" And honestly, I don’t know."
She says, for that reason, it's why it's even more important to get vaccinated, wear your mask and social distance. And if you choose not to, Dr. Val has a proposition.
"Come shadow Dr. Val for a day, and not wear a mask and then tell me how you feel," she said.