Coronavirus Takes An Epic Toll On 2 Frontline Health Care Workers

Jun 15, 2020
Originally published on June 15, 2020 8:12 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Mexico, there's been a surge of COVID-19 cases that is straining the country's underfunded public health system and taking a toll on front-line health care workers. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been checking in with two of them, a doctor and a nurse. And they've been telling her about their experiences.

SILVIA ROSAS SAUCEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Silvia Rosas Saucedo is a nurse at Tijuana's General Hospital. She's 40 and has worked there for 14 years.

SAUCEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: I first spoke with Rosas one day in late April as she was coming off her morning shift. She sent me videos of successes on the COVID floor where she worked.

(CHEERING)

KAHN: The whole staff applauds as a recovered patient is discharged. A month later, as cases in Mexico began to rise steeply, COVID patients took over six of the hospital's eight floors. Rosas, who makes less than $200 a week, cares for the most critical. All are intubated and unconscious.

SAUCEDO: (Through interpreter) Before we sedate them and put them in this induced coma, you can see them putting all their trust in us. So while they can't respond, we just do everything we can to get them better.

KAHN: Through the weeks I've spoken to Rosas, she doesn't complain, despite the challenging circumstances. She's still waiting to get her high-risk work bonus. And on a recent day off I spoke with her, Rosas was at the hospital comforting distraught relatives outside and taking their notes inside to read to their loved ones.

SAUCEDO: (Through interpreter) I don't know if they can hear me, but I just let them know that there is someone outside waiting for them - sorry - that it's important for them to keep fighting.

KAHN: Rosas says these days, few patients survive on her floor. Her city, Tijuana, is one of the country's coronavirus hot spots; another is the capital.

MAGALY CARMONA: I'm Magaly Carmona. I'm a nephrologist in Mexico City.

KAHN: Carmona is 33 and works 14-hour days in the dialysis unit and on the COVID floor at Dr. Carlos MacGregor Hospital. She makes about $2,000 a month. Her skills are in high demand now because of what coronavirus can do to kidneys.

CARMONA: Many patients are intubated. And they cannot go down to the immunodialysis unit. So we move the machine next to their bed and try to help them as much as we can.

KAHN: Carmona says as cases have hit record levels - earlier this month, more than 1,000 deaths were reported in just one day - her hospital jumped from about 40% of beds filled to near capacity. She says the ICU was full.

CARMONA: One patient told me you can smell death in the hospital. And that's something hard to believe and to see.

KAHN: Carmona has seen many colleagues get sick. More than 200 Mexican health care workers have now died. She buys her own protective gear that she says is better than the hospital's. Silvia Rosas and her fellow nurses in Tijuana launched a donation drive for masks and gowns. Both women are used to making do in Mexico's public health system. Carmona, though, did make a comment about a Mexican governor who got tested after an aide fell ill, while medical workers like herself don't get tested.

CARMONA: We are in the front line, right? And just because you are a politician, you get tested and you don't have symptoms. That's really hard to see.

KAHN: Nurse Rosas hasn't been tested either. When the pandemic began, she slept in her minivan to protect her husband and five children. And then she took up an offer of a free hotel room. But when Mexico began easing its lockdown June 1, the hotel took the room back.

SAUCEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Rosas is now back sleeping at home but keeping her distance from her family. Dr. Carmona is also worried about bringing the virus home. She lives with her parents. And she's frustrated by officials downplaying the severity of the pandemic right now. The president recently said Mexico had tamed the virus.

CARMONA: That's not the truth. It's not OK to say that. But people who are working every day in their units, every day on the floor, so those are the people that really know what's going on.

KAHN: Nurse Rosas is frustrated seeing so many people out on the streets without masks.

SAUCEDO: (Through interpreter) People don't value their lives or the huge effort we made. We are all going to have to learn how to live with this virus.

KAHN: Because, she says, it will be with us for a very long time. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.