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'Really heavy and really tragic' | Doctor describes toll COVID-19 takes on patients, families, health care workers

A doctor described the "heartbreaking work" that comes with the pandemic.

AUSTIN, Texas — Dr. Sarah Mills is a palliative care physician and clinical assistant professor at Dell Medical School. KVUE spoke with her about how the pandemic has taken its toll on patients, their families and health care workers.

What is your role as a palliative care physician?

"I think of myself like a quality-of-life doctor, so anybody who has severe symptoms. I work a lot with cancer patients, and so anybody who is having a lot of pain or nausea, I work with them to make their lives better. And I work a lot in the hospital already with patients with serious illness – and so some people are nearing the end of their lives, and helping them just get the best care and live their best life, and helping their families cope and move through that space with as much support as we possibly can."

How has COVID-19 affected your job?

"I've got to say that there's just such a stark contrast in the care that we can provide before the pandemic and the care that we provide to patients after the pandemic, and it's kind of across the board ... Before, their three children would come in and hold their hands and be able to say goodbye ... and there would be crying. But there would also be laughter and storytelling and grief and togetherness. It was hard, but also there was a lot of beauty in those families being able to be there. And now with COVID-19, the hospital has to protect the patients and also the staff and the families of the patients, so the visiting policies are just heartbreaking. And we wanted to make exceptions for people to be able to come in and say goodbye to their loved ones that are dying with COVID. And a lot of times we can't at all, or we let one family member in for 15 minutes with a mask and sometimes a face shield and a gown, and that's the only time that families have. And that's some of the most heartbreaking, hard work."

How does that role, being the person in the room, impact you? 

"Having to be the one that tells the family that they can't be there, I got to say that both of those roles have been just so heavy, and watching, having to have that conversation multiple times a day, every day of, 'Your loved one is dying, and no, you can't come in and hold their hands and you have to say goodbye over Zoom,' and how hard that is, and having to do it every day, multiple times a day for weeks now and watching those numbers still climb has just been – I'm not going to lie – it's been really heavy and really tragic, and a lot of our team is feeling that weight."

As the last person that patients sometimes see, how do you handle that kind of weight on your shoulders?

"It's one of the reasons that the first wave of the pandemic there was a lot of unknown and a lot of uncertainty and anxiety that way. And this most recent wave, it just feels like, we're tired and people are dragging and we're all trying to carry each other through this really hard time, and it would mean the world to all of us if we could band together as a society at this point and take the public health measures to not end up in the ICU, not have so many end up in the ICU."

What is your message to the public?

"My message would just be that this is serious – it is real and people are dying, but the disease isn't magic; it's preventable and it's not forever. And if we could be united in really locking things down and wearing masks, we will be in a hugely different space in three months from now. And so I know that the public health officials are starting to come out with the 100-day mask challenge and I would 100% support that. Start counting those days, but follow through right now, keep distant and know that if we do that, there will be an end in sight and it won't be this just ongoing wave of everything. And then my final message would be COVID has been tragic. But what's also been really tragic is that there have been a number of cases of patients coming into the hospital really late with cancer that has spread all over their body or ruptured aortas that then they didn't get blood flow to their brain and they had brain damage. And so I would just say, if you have a medical emergency of any kind, not just COVID-related, come to the hospital. We have the medical equipment and the PPE to keep you safe and get the care that you need."

Dr. Mills closed the interview by encouraging and asking everyone to get vaccinated when they are able.

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