“Pink little sausages” is how Dr. Mark Welton still refers to his toes five months after he tested positive for COVID-19. Having sensitive digits is a common side effect from the virus. Welton’s toes also turn other pale, sickly hues and always feel like they’re freezing.
As a surgeon and chief medical officer for Fairview Health Services, Welton brings an academic sense of marvel to the myriad effects COVID has had on his 63-year-old body. Before it hit, he put in an hour of high-intensity cycling before starting his long workday. After he became ill, he got “loopy” during phone conversations with colleagues and grew so fatigued, he could barely climb a flight of stairs. His pulse erratically soared to alarming heights, and testing showed heart and pancreatic damage.
“It’s fascinating,” said Welton, whose health care system includes Bethesda Hospital, Minnesota’s first dedicated COVID care center. “I just wish it didn’t happen to me.”
Welton’s experience doesn’t just illustrate how severely ill even healthy people can become when infected. It’s also an important reminder of the unique risks that medical providers face and the toll that the pandemic has exacted from them and their families. Welton’s wife, for example, also became infected with COVID.
Doctors, nurses, support staff and administrators like Welton at hospitals and senior care centers are owed the nation’s thanks for their courage. But this critical workforce is paying a price in both physical and emotional health. These side effects need to be better understood by the public, which plays a critical role in safeguarding caregivers by taking individual action to limit COVID’s spread.
In Minnesota, just over 8,000 health care workers had tested positive for COVID as of Friday. While state health officials commendably track this when other states often don’t, the Minnesota Department of Health’s website doesn’t say how many were infected at work or in the community.
Nine health care workers in the state have died of COVID, though state stats don’t go beyond that to say what their occupations were. Media reports indicate that a St. Paul physician, Dr. Albasha Hume, died from COVID earlier this year. The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) said through a spokesman it is not aware of other active physicians here who have died from the virus.
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported late last month that around 120,000 health care workers had tested positive and 587 had died. But a joint report from the Guardian and Kaiser Health News found “gaps in government data” and their own research indicates that 922 U.S. health care workers died through August.
Welton, who was acutely ill for close to two months, illustrates the physical toll on health care workers. But the emotional strain must be taken seriously as well. “ ‘The despair is real,’ an emergency physician told our board of trustees recently. She said she has never seen so much dying,” said MMA President Dr. Keith Stelter.
Thankfully, Minnesota is at the forefront of finding innovative ways to prevent caregiver burnout. University of Minnesota researchers are studying measures to promote “psychological resilience” among health care workers during a pandemic. One of the innovative measures: a “buddy system” for caregivers, which involves pairing up with a peer for mutual support.
This is a good idea that should be embraced nationally, and more details about the program, known as MINNRAP, are available online at tinyurl.com/y48bgb8m. This proactive approach is also a welcome change in the medical profession, which has too long had a hard-nosed attitude about emotional strain. “We’re always more resilient when we are deeply connected,’’ said Dr. Sophia Vinogradov, a professor and head of the U’s Psychiatry Department.
After “a long climb out,” Welton is back to work at Fairview. Officials there note that the organization also prioritizes staff’s emotional resilience, and added that Bethesda has “some of the best survival rates and one of the lowest infection rates among health care workers in the country.”
Welton and other providers demonstrate their dedication to patients every day. Social distancing, good hygiene and masking up are the best ways to say thanks to all of those who remain on the front lines.