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First person

First person: 'It's here and it's real, Mom.' One doctor's experiences with COVID-19

From the Sasha Paulsen's favorite Napa Valley Register stories from 2020 series

On Mother’s Day, my son Sam called me on Skype. He was taking a break in the staff room at the UCLA Medical Center.

“I have a card,” he said. “I was going to mail it today but I forgot the post office isn’t open on Sunday.”

This, I have learned, is doctor-speak for “I’ve been a little bit busy.”

No worries, I said. No card could match seeing my son, the doctor, at work in his scrubs. I was about to ask how his patients were doing that day when he glanced at his nifty Apple watch. “I’d better get back,” he said.

A few days later, he called again. “Now that the rotation is finished,” he said. “I can tell you — I didn’t want to at the time because I knew you’d worry.”

It was this: He’d been in the ICU, in the ward set up for COVID-19 patients.

“I can still worry,” I assured him. “Starting now. Yep. I am worrying.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Sam has been my direct line to the world outside Napa. Finishing the third year of his residency in internal medicine at UCLA, he had planned to spend May in Thailand, working at the UCLA Center for Global & Immigrant Health — in infectious diseases — when he’d got that assignment last summer, the disease they were primarily concerned with was malaria.

In January, everything changed, and as COVID-19 spread around the world, it became clear that he wouldn’t treating malaria in Thailand during May, even if there had been flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok. The world had shut down, and he’d be dealing with an infectious disease rampaging through Los Angeles.

How serious was it, really?


As he rotated through assignments at the main medical center on the UCLA campus, the Santa Monica VA, and the Santa Monica Community Hospital, his calls took on an increasingly worried tone.

“Mom, are you at home?”

“No, I am in the newsroom. But it’s fine.”

“Can’t you work from home?”

“No.” I had all kinds of reasons: I work on a Mac at home. I couldn’t hook it up to the news program, which is on PCs. Besides, I might get distracted planning a garden or thinking about repainting the kitchen. It wouldn’t be the same, not being in a newsroom. Even if it was becoming emptier day by day. The front door locked, the staff scattering to shelter at home.

“Can we get you a PC to work at home?”

I could tell he was relieved when Lee Enterprises sent over a PC that I could set up at home, next to my Mac.

“Stay home,” he said. “If you have to go out, wear a mask. Better yet, send Ariel to the store and stay home.”

Ariel, his sister, was at home, laid off. She was fine, I assured him. She had a roof over her head and food to eat. I had a job. Even when our company mandated furloughs, bizarrely, my unemployment was more than I typically earned.

Sam was fine too, he insisted. UCLA had been planning since January. They hadn’t waited. They had protocols, plans, protective equipment. Elon Musk had donated 100,000 masks.

“Where did he get them?” I asked.

“You are probably the only one asking,” he said.

He had not been dealing directly with COVID-19 patients. He had other rotations. He was talking to patients primarily via computer and telephone. He told me about one 91-year-old veteran who had called him. “Hey, doc,” the man had said. “Can you help me get some toilet paper?”

“Did you get him some?” I asked.

“We did.”

As the pandemic numbers increased, I noticed he just liked hearing about home, what tomatoes I’d planted, how my new novel was going, and what goofy things Ariel’s dog Puck had done now. Puck had eaten her sourdough starter; I had expected him to blow up, but he hadn’t. Sam would ask how his favorite restaurants were doing.

Besides remembering to order from Villa Corona, what else could we do for him?

“Stay home,” he said. “If you have to go out, wear a mask. Well, you can send wine. And maybe some Rancho Gordo beans.”

Things were not as bad as they had expected them to get, he said. At one point, they had feared they were just weeks behind New York. The sheltering at home, the masks, the shut-downs, were paying off.

Then he volunteered to go into the COVID-19 wards in the ICU. It was the way to understand the disease, insofar as it was possible to understand. And the precautions were extraordinary. He said he looked like a spaceman in his his protective gear.

“Did anyone die?” I asked.

Yes. And it was not what you would have expected: it was not a weak, elderly person with pre-existing conditions they’d lost, but a young healthy first-responder. The disease had shut down the man’s organs. They had managed to save another patient, a woman, who’d been close to death. Heroics? He dismissed this. “This is what we’ve trained to do, Mom.”

This month, Sam wrapped up his residency at UCLA, although he is staying on for another year as chief resident. They have new interns arriving at UCLA from everywhere, and the concern is how to keep everyone safe.

But he had another worry about the world outside the hospital. It was the mixed messages, the inaccurate statements, the deadly dangerous impulse to say we’d been stuck at home too long and it was time to move on, and the possibility that politics could prevent people from doing something as simple and as effective, for themselves and others, as a wearing mask. If you think a mask is uncomfortable, he said, imagine having COVID-19 closing up your lungs.

Sometimes here in Napa, we can be a bit sheltered from so many things, I said, especially those that are uncomfortable, unlovely, unpleasant. I can almost understand how people can believe the pandemic is not real.

“Oh, it’s real,” he said. “It’s here and it’s real, Mom. I’ll even write an article for you, if you want, to say this.”

I said that was OK; I’d write one for him. He would probably be busy.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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