Reflections from doctor who treated patient one in U.S. 00:00

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Reflections from doctor who treated patient one in U.S.

‘We were fighting for every single life.’ In January 2020, Dr. George Diaz became the doctor who tended the first-known U.S. case at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash.

Mitra Bonshahi
Dr. George Diaz is an infectious disease specialist in Everett, Washington. A little over a year ago, he treated the first-known patient with Covid-19 in the U.S. He shares his experience of being on the front lines and his hopes for the next year. 

George Diaz
From a young age, I really enjoyed thinking about infectious diseases. I was 10 or 12 years old, and my parents bought me a microscope for my birthday. I started doing all sorts of experiments on bacteria and looking for little parasites where I could find them. I got really interested in things that were tiny, and actually ended up majoring in microbiology. It was always something that I found really interesting. 

Infectious disease specialist Dr. George Diaz treated the first-known patient with Covid-19 in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett)

You know, thinking about infectious diseases as a career was something that came naturally. There’s very few fields in medicine, I think, where there literally are new things that are happening all the time and new diseases and new challenges.

Even in my lifetime, we’ve had diseases that have developed like HIV, MERS, SARS, dengue, chikungunya virus, swine flu, now coronavirus. 

People that choose to do infectious disease, just have a blank book, that you can really find your own way and do what you love and find interesting, and I think that’s pretty rare in medicine in general. 

I think I heard about the initial outbreak in Wuhan in early December. Within infectious diseases, we hear about outbreaks occurring all over the world. And it’s a little hard to know exactly how serious some of these are, and how much it will actually impact us. And so we knew that it was happening in Wuhan. And in the Seattle area, there’s a huge Asian population, and there’re direct flights from Seattle to basically almost anywhere in Asia. So we knew that, more than likely, that if this did leave China that it was going to be probably hitting one of our hospitals first. We didn’t really know, at the time, the degree of contagiousness. We didn’t know the mortality rates, so we assumed the worst and prepared for Ebola. 

You know, how would we accept somebody essentially with Ebola coming into our hospital? And then I got a call from our infection preventionist at the hospitals. And she told me that we had been notified by the CDC that the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed, and that the CDC wanted to submit the patient. 

At that point, we decided that, yeah, the best way to do this would be to activate our Ebola team. It took us about two hours from the time we sent the page out to have everything ready to have the patient arrive. 

We tried to make him feel at ease as much as possible. He was in like super isolation, right? You can imagine being on the other side of that, where everyone’s treating you like you’ve got this horribly deadly disease. Anyone would be very worried about the situation. But we did our best, I think, to make him feel at peace and comfortable. 

Around the fifth day into his hospitalization, our patient started developing pneumonia. He started requiring oxygen. He started looking worse. That was very concerning not only for him, but for me, also. Coincident with that, the CDC discussed a novel treatment for coronavirus. This drug remdesivir, which had been studied on Ebola. It was known to be safe. So our patient became the first person in the world to receive remdesivir (for Covid). I stuck around while the infusion was given to make sure he didn’t have any reactions and once he looked like he tolerated the first infusion fine, I went home for the night. Really, not knowing what was gonna happen, and worried that I was gonna get woken up at midnight, saying he was getting worse. Thankfully, they let me sleep through the night. 

And the next morning, I went over to the hospital and he was much better, which was great news. Over the next couple of days, he felt like he was back to normal essentially, and wanting to go home. So he went home, and I spoke to him a couple weeks ago and he’s doing great! He taught us a great deal about the disease, about this treatment, etc. 

When you are called to do something that you’re very well prepared to do, you just do it. There was no fear, there’s no panic, there’s no worry. It was, ‘OK, we know what we need to do here at our hospital. We know how to manage this.’ 

Pandemics are like a bad storm or any other natural thing that happens. You don’t know exactly when it’s gonna happen. But it’s gonna happen at some point. I was born to be here. This is what my goal in life was. And so, I would imagine it’s like a mission. Something similar when someone goes on a tour of duty. We were fighting for every single life. That’s our business. 

My hope for the next year would be that we all get vaccinated and rid ourselves of this pandemic. It’s going to require a national unified response to vaccination — that we’re capable of doing. I think that there’s been a lot of thoughtful people working to make things better, based on science. But there are elements in our society that are actively trying to harm us. And that needs to be met head-on with truth. 

When I look back on the experience, I think of the degree of heroism of certain people. There are people out there that work in my hospital that know that there’s someone with an infection that’s contagious and could kill them if they got infected — and still come to work every day, and go into the rooms with those patients every day, and comfort them and help them get through their illness. They are heroic, and that heroism is something that will stick with me forever.

Mitra Bonshahi
For iPondr, I’m Mitra Bonshahi.

Alex Charner is a Caracas-born, Atlanta-based illustrator and communication trainer. As a student and artist in Dalvero Academy, Alex was part of the team of artists who documented the rebuilding and launch of the Charles W. Morgan wooden whaling ship at Mystic Seaport. Trained as a réportage or on-the-spot illustrator; Alex sees drawing as a powerful language to document events, tell stories and build connections.

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