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A Physician's Firsthand Experience Working the Frontlines During COVID-19

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As we start to see another surge of COVID-19 cases around the country, we are reminded of where we started. In early March, we didn’t know what awaited us. One family medicine physician at Ochsner St. Anne in Raceland shares his story of diagnosing one of the first COVID-19 patients in Louisiana, catching the virus himself and seeing those close to him lose their battle to COVID.

Jack Heidenreich Jr., MD, is a family medicine physician at Ochsner St. Anne Hospital. Dr. Heidenreich works with five other internists and family physicians, and they each take turns treating hospitalized patients. When the COVID-19 virus made its way to Louisiana, Dr. Heidenreich unknowingly treated one of the first COVID-19-positive patients and shares his story:

“In early March, I was asked to see a patient in my ICU at Ochsner St. Anne with bilateral pneumonia, a serious infection that affects both of the lungs and can causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs. The patient was experiencing excessively rapid breathing, and we had him on BiPap, a non-invasive ventilation that is used to support breathing. I went in his room without a mask thinking he may need to be intubated. I felt his breath on my face. He was critical but stable and holding his own. I wrote some orders and went home.”

“I was watching the 10 o’clock news, and it featured a story on COVID in China. I saw a Chinese doctor hold up a chest X-ray, and it looked identical to that of my patient. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. We weren’t ready. One week ago, this patient was having a great time in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and now he was struggling to breathe. I knew COVID was coming, and I was getting ready for it. But I was not expecting it so soon.”

“I immediately called the ICU and told them to mask up and quarantine the patient. The next morning, I called the Louisiana Department of Health. It took a while, but I was able to convince them to test my patient for COVID-19.”

“Three days later, the test came back positive. I was one of the first doctors to diagnose COVID-19 in Louisiana. My reward was a 14-day quarantine. Fortunately, the patient persevered and ultimately survived after two weeks in the hospital.”

“After my quarantine and experiencing no symptoms, they allowed me to return to work with a mask and a face shield. I was ready to return to work as long as I was safe. I followed strict CDC guidelines, but was nervous.”

“I am the vice president of medical affairs of Ochsner Bayou Region. I organized Thursday lunch meetings with my fellow physicians to discuss COVID and get specialists to call in and give us advice on patient care. Every week things were changing. The doctor that was the weekly hospitalist became the expert on COVID for that week. We would take notes and get back to work.”

“We did better than other facilities. Our numbers were small compared to New Orleans. The specialists with Ochsner were very helpful with guidance. Overall, we treated around 60 COVID patients and had around 10 deaths, including two young people, in the first three months of COVID. We lost a lot of elderly from our community and nursing homes to COVID. Compared to New Orleans, we didn’t have it so bad. I can’t imagine what those medical staffs went through.”

In addition to treating COVID-19 patients, this virus has also deeply affected Dr. Heidenreich and his family. In addition to himself, his wife and his children caught COVID, and his father-in-law and his wife’s godfather contracted COVID and died from it.

“The virus got into the nursing home facility where my father-in-law was a resident. He was a 94-year-old, Purple Heart WWII veteran. He died from the virus. They let my wife go to his bedside to say her goodbyes. All I can say is COVID is a lonely death. No one is allowed to see you and most people die alone.”

“My wife subsequently caught COVID on May 1, and I, along with our son and daughter, caught it from her. Fortunately, the four of us recovered but it wasn’t a cakewalk.”

“I had moderate symptoms including chills, muscle aches, chest pain and cough. Then I lost my sense of smell and taste. My pulmonologist and coworkers were very supportive of me and my family. They called us every day and had us on a regiment of various medications, and thankfully, we never had significant lung damage or low blood oxygen. The Ochsner nurse would check on me for about three days and finally told me I had mild symptoms. I thought if these are mild, thank God I don’t have severe symptoms.”

“Thankfully, she was right, and my symptoms progressively got better. On day 10, I was allowed to go back to work and after about a month I was finally feeling back to normal, as well as the rest of my family.”

“The leaders at Ochsner have done an amazing job helping us weather this storm. I can’t imagine what smaller health care systems went through. We had great PPE. We were able to turn our ICU into a COVID unit. I had excellent, experienced ICU nursing staff making the necessary changes as well as upper-level management keeping the supplies coming to St. Anne as well as nearby Chabert Medical Center in Houma.”

“As bad as the last several months have been, COVID-19 is the reason I became a physician.”

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