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“Por Favor, No Dejas que mi Hermana Muera”: A doctor’s perspective on COVID-19

Written By: Kate Sullivan, MD/MPH Candidate Class of 2023
Date: 7/7/2020

Dr. Elizabeth Stranges woke up every morning in late April and early May and prepared for a battle against COVID-19. As a senior resident in the Loyola University Chicago Internal Medicine Residency Program, Dr. Stranges was one of many health care providers to risk her health daily to care for our community.

Dr. Stranges recently rotated through one of the COVID-19 Intensive Care Units at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. Despite years of training and endless hours spent treating severely ill patients, she was shocked. The entire dynamic of the ICU floor had changed. The anxiety was palpable. The uncertainty of the disease prevailed. The newfound isolation was unavoidable. Silence from the absence of family members was filled instead by the humming of ventilators and the clicking of keyboards.

Despite these changes, Dr. Stranges was still treating sick patients who were fighting desperately for their lives. Only now, they were together fighting the same disease: COVID-19. Her role remained the same as well.  “I help patients along their journey,” said Dr. Stranges. “Sometimes that means stepping up and providing intensive life saving measures. Other times that means stepping back,” she said. Conveying this message to families became much more difficult in the wake of the pandemic, now through video calls rather than in person. She had to provide a sense of reassurance to families while simultaneously addressing the gravity of the situation.

One such conversation stuck with Dr. Stranges. On her first day rounding in the COVID-19 ICU, she met a Latino mother of three in her thirties, who at that point had already been on a ventilator for a week. Despite mechanically assisted breathing, this patient’s condition continued to deteriorate. Reacting quickly, the medical team switched the patient to a life support technology called ECMO, which essentially serves as a person’s lungs, allowing the organs time to slowly heal. Dr. Stranges called the family with regular updates. Through these frequent conversations, Elizabeth learned that the patient’s husband died the prior year; the two children had already lost one parent, while the other was struggling to survive. The children were now staying with their aunt, the patient’s sister. The situation was far from ideal. Their aunt was not working. Their uncle was unable to work his factory job, as he was recovering from a recent COVID-19 hospitalization. They were struggling financially, worried about the next meal, the month’s rent, and the growing pile of unpaid bills. Yet, the family was most preoccupied with the recent loss of another family member who had recently battled COVID-19 and had succumbed to the vicious disease. Each time Dr. Stranges spoke to the aunt, she would hear the same words repeated… “por favor, no dejes que mi hermana muera” – “Please don’t let my sister die.”

It has now been nearly six weeks since Dr. Stranges first heard those words. The patient remains in an induced coma on ECMO. While she is stable, her future remains unknown. Even if she does survive, what will her life even look like? It may take her months, even years, just to walk again. What impact will this have her children, on her sister? Only time will tell.

For Dr. Stranges, her time treating COVID-19 patients has highlighted the injustices and inequities in our healthcare system. The majority of the COVID-19 patients she cared for were Hispanic or African American. She witnessed firsthand how these communities have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic. More than ever before, we as healthcare providers need to advocate for transformative change. As Dr. Stranges said, “We need to think critically, to challenge ourselves to challenge the system. We need to empower ourselves and patients to make the change. Together, we need to build an alternative to what exists.” 

If you are interested in sharing your own COVID-19 story, please contact LUPHAorg@gmail.com.