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A Santa Rosa doctor’s grueling year on the front lines battling COVID-19

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County marks the one-year anniversary of its unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In the series “A Year Like No Other” that continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here. We thank Summit State Bank for supporting our efforts.

Read all the stories here.

Dr. Veronica Jordan has cared for scores of coronavirus patients over the past year at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. Some fell very ill but recovered. Others died.

One patient in particular stays with her.

He was a vineyard worker who battled the pathogen with a singular ferocity. Despite receiving an experimental treatment, the man became so ill last spring that he was in the intensive-care unit where he had a tube put down his throat to open his airway.

Still struggling to breathe, he underwent a tracheostomy, a procedure to cut an opening in his neck so a tube could be inserted to allow air into his lungs. He spent 45 days at Sutter.

“There were many times we thought he wasn’t going to make it,” said Jordan, a physician who takes care of patients and teaches doctors in residency at the hospital.

It was December 2019 when Jordan, a 43-year-old mother of three children younger than 10, first read about a new and highly contagious virus linked to an open-air market in China. She remembers thinking, “Well, this isn’t really going to impact us.”

That was wishful thinking. In late February, Sutter admitted its first COVID-19 patient, a man who had been on a cruise ship.

Jordan took two hours on a recent day at the hospital to share memories of the year that followed, accounts of her time on the front lines of the pandemic. She spoke of the challenge of learning all she could about this novel coronavirus, of providing top-notch care for patients while safeguarding hospital staff. She spoke of the heartbreak of “end-of-life” discussions with the families of patients close to dying from the infectious disease that has killed at least 306 county residents.

One of her greatest challenges, as both a teacher and a practicing physician, Jordan said, was figuring out how to “speak with confidence, when you’re still learning, yourself, about the thing you’re speaking about? How do you help patients understand their prognosis when you’re still learning about the disease they have?”

Walking down a corridor in the hospital, she stopped at a door, then punched in a security code. This windowless space, nicknamed the Hive, is where Jordan does much of her teaching.

To compensate for a lack of windows, the room’s west wall features a large photograph of the Russian River, a wisp of mist over the water. On a shelf to the left of that picture is a small tree, its limbs decorated with a dozen or so colorful ribbons. Those ribbons represent patients who died in recent months, most of them from COVID-19.

“For every patient who’s passed away,” said Dr. Cherie Green, “we light a candle in their memory.”

Well, sort of. It’s not OK to have an open flame in the hospital, so they switch on a battery-powered candle, instead.

After admitting a steady trickle of coronavirus patients for the first 10 months of the pandemic, Sutter saw that number spike in December and January — the byproduct of people gathering for holiday celebrations. Close to a dozen of Sutter’s virus patients died during that time.

“December and January were really difficult,” Green said. “It’s been absolutely devastating for some of our residents.”

The psychological toll is especially heavy in the hospital’s coronavirus ward. The hardest part, said Cora Kendall, a nurse in that wing, was the need to keep family members away from loved ones in isolation.

“We’ve had people who were really sick, and their families couldn’t be there.”

“As much as we tried to be there for them,” Kendall went on, her voice cracking, “we’re not their family.”

“You are such an amazing nurse,” declared Jordan, swooping in for a hug.

One of her jobs is to maintain a COVID-19 “illness script,” a list of signs and symptoms that helped other doctors identify those infected with the contagion. As scientists have learned more about the disease, her script has evolved. “I think I’m on version seven or eight,” Jordan said.

Once rapid testing was widely available, the script became less important. But in the early months of the pandemic, it played a key role helping doctors determine who was infected, and who wasn’t.

“I’d have residents calling me saying, ‘So, Veronica, the patient has a cough, but he’s had a cough for three months,’ ” or ‘Veronica, he has a little rash, but I think it’s just eczema,’ ” Jordan said.

On this recent day there were five COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s 12-bed ICU. That was far fewer than in the December and January winter surge.

“It was horrible,” said an ICU nurse named Carla, who preferred not to give her last name. “A lot of super sick patients.”

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County marks the one-year anniversary of its unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In the series “A Year Like No Other” that continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here. We thank Summit State Bank for supporting our efforts.

Read all the stories here.

She is encouraged by the declining numbers of coronavirus infections in Sonoma County, and the corresponding spike in vaccinations, but isn’t celebrating yet.

“I hope all the unmasking, and moving to the red tier, doesn’t bring it back,” the nurse said. “We see what happens when there are a lot of big gatherings.”

Jordan, too, projected a measured optimism. While doctors have learned much about the virus in a year, they still have much to learn.

“It’s sneaky,” Jordan said. “Some people’s bodies have this crazy inflammatory response to it, and other peoples’ bodies are like, ’Meh.’“

When a patient’s prognosis is particularly dire, she and her residents recall the miraculous story of that lionhearted vineyard worker who spent 45 days with them, much of that time in critical condition. Whatever became of him?

“He ended up walking out of here,” Jordan said. “One of my resident doctors saw him in a clinic, and he is well and healthy.

“We thought he was going to die, and he didn’t.”

3 questions with Dr. Veronica Jordan

Q: You mentioned reading about the novel coronavirus as early as December 2019. Why?

A: As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, I’ve always been interested in global health. I’m also the daughter of a nurse who specialized in infection control. My mother was teaching people how to use personal protective equipment during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.

Q: What was a vivid memory from 2020?

A: Our hospital had one of the first cases of COVID-19 in Northern California. What I most remember about that case is that nobody at the hospital got it. We didn’t have all the fancy stuff they have now, all the extra layers, but we used masks and gloves — the same universal precautions my Mom was using during the HIV epidemic. I think that’s a pretty amazing testimony to the effectiveness of those precautions.

Q: Can you think of anything good that’s come out of the pandemic?

A: This may sound a little Hallmark, but I’m encouraged by the attention being placed on the importance of community and public health. The notion that if we don’t take care of our most vulnerable, we’re not safe ourselves. I hope we can retain that focus when all this is over.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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