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Santa Rosa doctor uses Twitter to describe isolation, grief and joy in hospital COVID-19 ward

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital doctor Mark Shapiro got home about 4 p.m. Thursday after a shift on the COVID-19 ward, made a cup of coffee and sat down to write.

Stand next to me outside the room. Hand hygiene, gown, gloves. Double check. I check you. You check me.

It was almost involuntary, this strong impulse he had to bring people into a place verboten to all but so very few.

As you look in the window, you can see her pacing around.

Let’s knock and go in.

Tens of thousands of American people have fought for their lives in hospital rooms in the 11 months since the coronavirus was first detected in the United States as it began its rampant spread across the globe. They have battled incredible uncertainty and fear layered on top of discomfort, pain and unthinkable loneliness.

With loved ones mostly barred from entering those rooms, the nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, phlebotomists, lab techs, janitors and others are central witnesses and warriors in this battle.

In 10 minimalist tweets, Shapiro’s words were unflinching as he wrote about two patients he saw during a recent nine-day assignment caring for patients at his hospital’s COVID-19 ward. He typed while sitting at his kitchen table, sloughing off the day’s work before spending the evening with his family.

The drama on a #COVID-19 inpatient service is intense, frequent, & cuts like a knife.

Shapiro opened a door into his hospital, joining a growing number of doctors and other front-line health care workers breaking a code of silence to pull back the curtain on this tragic, epochal time.

That is what a person who can’t breathe looks like.

The pallor, the sweat, the agitation, the heaving chest.

The wide eyes.

He’s come to that place. We discussed it yesterday. His family is aware.

Intubation. A ventilator.

A ventilator. It’s an extraordinary measure of life support marking a next, challenging stage of the disease. Before health care workers expertly insert a tube into your throat then down into the trachea, you must confront your last chance to speak with whatever ragged breath remains and an outcome far from certain.

At first he says “No” but we encourage him.

The nurse brings in the iPad.

With the last air in his shattered lungs, he says goodbye to his family.

Over an internet connection.

An iconic image has emerged in the pandemic: A close-up photo taken by a doctor or nurse of themselves in the aftermath of a shift. Face mostly shielded by a protective hospital-grade mask. Exhaustion in eyes red-rimmed from tears.

These images accompany plain-spoken calls for people to imagine seeing what they see, to wear masks and help ensure this pandemic has an end.

On a recent day, Shapiro held his arm out and snapped a photo of himself against a mural inside his Santa Rosa hospital, what was once a pediatric unit that has since been reconstructed into a special ward for patients with COVID-19. An indefatigable optimist, he was smiling through the plastic of what’s called a CAPR helmet, a respirator with a face shield sealed with plastic. He wore blue scrubs under a protective clear plastic medical gown.

Barred from revealing details that might identify any of his patients, Shapiro kept his descriptions simple. Like this local doctor, more medical professionals are talking openly about their experiences with COVID-19 patients than ever before.

Shapiro, an avid commentator on social media about his profession who produces a medical podcast called Explore the Space, wasn’t writing for the doctors in his network. He was writing to the rest of us.

It is while describing the isolation of patients that Shapiro’s buoyant disposition briefly falters in an interview, exposing a deep and shared grief.

“We look like astronauts,” Shapiro said.

There is a deep disconnect in care between the need among patients for human connection and the stringent protective measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The person who needs it the most is at the greatest remove. It’s awful. It’s just devastating,” said Shapiro, overcome with emotion.

But sometimes, patients recover. They leave the hospital. Shapiro writes about the woman pacing in her hospital room, taking us into her room.

I ask how she is feeling.

“So much better.”

“Would you like to go home today?”

Her eyes fill with tears. They pour out as she tilts her head skyward and prays out loud.

My eyes are full. I bet yours are too.

Shapiro said he wants people to understand that while so much of the coronavirus pandemic is uncertain, there are victories, too.

“People do get out of the hospital. It happens and that needs to be celebrated,” Shapiro said. “It’s restorative for the human condition to know that despite all the sadness and suffering, we do send people home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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