As I write this column at the start of the week, 3,000 Americans are dying every day of COVID-19.
The ripple effects such a tragedy implies — on patients, families and health care workers — is beyond words, but perhaps shining a light on one local couple can help exemplify some of the resilient, compassionate and heroic efforts of those on the front lines.
Dr. Justin Levy and Katie Holleran Levy of South Pasadena are literally living and fighting the battle against COVID in the hospital and at home.
The Levys are married — he’s an internal medicine hospitalist and she is a registered nurse. Both are now caring for COVID patients at nearby Huntington Hospital, where Justin has been in the fight since March. Since the caseload has exploded in November, Katie has been reassigned from her regular job as a stroke coordinator at the hospital to also caring for those infected with the virus.
“I miss my [extended] family and I will never take hugging and kissing a loved one for granted,” Katie said. “As a couple, we are lucky to have each other. It’s nice knowing they can relate to what the other is going through. Our bad days consist of life or death and outcomes of what the patient’s quality of life will be going forward, so you need to have someone to talk to.”
Helping COVID patients became a way of life for Justin when the pandemic was declared in March last year.
“In the beginning it was stressful. I felt like every day I was going to contract COVID from a patient and then pass it along to Katie,” Justin said. “We now know that our personal protective equipment — including N95 masks, face shields and gowns — does a remarkable job of protecting us from the virus.”
Justin said that when COVID cases started appearing at hospitals, he and the other doctors had to climb a learning curve. Now they have more knowledge, but they find it stretched by the sheer number of patients they are now seeing.
Huntington had 207 patients being hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday this week, with 44 of them admitted into the intensive care unit. A hospital spokesman said the hospital is currently able to expand its ICU capacity as needed.
A graph on the hospital website shows admissions of COVID patients spiked dramatically beginning in late November.
“The initial surge in the spring and summer seems like a minor blip compared to what we are seeing now,” Justin said. “Our hospital is near capacity, with half of the patients being COVID positive, if not more.
“I am surprised by how sick COVID patients can become in an instant,” he added. “There’s a period — about 10 to 14 days out from initial infection — where some patients develop severe disease and may require life support or being on a ventilator.”
“In March, patients tried to withhold coming into the hospital because they were afraid of COVID,” Katie added. “After Thanksgiving, things shifted. Many people weighed the risks of seeing family versus getting COVID, and now our hospital and many around the country are seeing the consequences.”
One aspect of the disease that has a huge impact on doctors and nurses is the inability of patients to personally see loved ones.
“It’s hard for families to grasp the reality and severity of their family member being hospitalized,” said Katie, who now works 12-hour shifts along with any other times that need covering. “One moment they are talking with their loved one and the next moment they may be saying their goodbyes.
“It can be quite lonely for them,” Justin said of his patients. “I take care of a lot of older patients, whose mental health really suffers without family for days or weeks at a time. Fortunately, we have the nursing and support staff that is providing comfort for them as well.
“I have found communication to be challenging during this pandemic,” he added. “Many of my patients are older, may have cognitive or hearing issues, and often they speak other primary languages. When I come in to speak with a patient and I have two masks on and a face shield, attempting to communicate successfully is quite difficult.”
The result of this increase in patients has taken an emotional toll, but Katie said she is “really inspired by the staff at Huntington, including nursing, respiratory therapists and janitorial services. The hospital couldn’t function without them.
“I’ve been [in the ICU] only a few weeks and I’m tired,” added Katie, who has been at Huntington for 5½ years. “I can’t imagine how the staff feels who have been here 10 months. I can’t possibly represent them.
“It’s disheartening when people don’t think this disease is real,” she said.
Katie is supporting an experienced nurse during her ICU shifts. Together, they care for three patients.
“It’s hard and it’s sad,” she said — four patients died during just one of her shifts.
“There is a fatigue among the community attempting to deal with the isolation and various government protocols,” added Justin, who went to Creighton University School of Medicine, trained as a resident at Huntington and has been a hospitalist physician there for more than two years.
A hospitalist sees patients that are admitted on the general medical ward, outside the ICU. They take care of patients with all kinds of issues such as pneumonia, stroke, heart attack, cancer and many more.
“We also are seeing our share of COVID patients,” Justin said. “They are either admitted from the ER to us or were in the ICU but now stable enough to be downgraded to the medical floor.”
Justin was born in Glendale and grew up there and in South Pasadena, graduating from SPHS in 2002. Katie is from Montana and is an expert skier and snowboarder who moved to Los Angeles after college. She went to nursing school in the L.A. area. She also works periodically at the San Marino jewelry store Single Stone.
Justin’s sister Megan described the couple as “playful.”
“They are always laughing at inside jokes and find the same things funny,” she said. “They tease each other. They love to play sports and games.”
Katie said she uses her phone to track the distance she walks and, on average, she now covers seven miles in a 12-hour shift.
And that’s not sports and games.
“We talk about cases less often now,” Katie said. “Our first priority when we get home is to shower and then we want to decompress, occasionally enjoying a glass of wine and sometimes eat dinner if we are not too tired.”