30 March 2020
Thomas Krajewski stopped at the hospital room in the American state of Louisiana at two o'clock in the morning. The emergency department doctor was worried about his patient: A man in his 70s, with a fever and shortness of breath.
"Do you mind calling my son?" the patient asked. He knew his family was worried.
The man had COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Within 12 hours of seeing Krajewski, the patient needed a ventilator. In three days he was dead.
COVID-19 has killed more than 150 people in Louisiana. The state has confirmed 3,540 cases of coronavirus infection since March 9. It is spreading there very fast.
Governor John Bel Edwards has said Louisiana could become the next Italy. There is concern that some hospitals there may fill up completely and have to refuse entry to sick people.
Health workers are preparing for that day. Edwards spoke about the situation Sunday on a television news program. He said Louisiana only had a small number of the 13,000 ventilators it will need. And, he said, the federal government has not approved the state's request for ventilators from the national supply.
The city of New Orleans has the most infections. Officials there are setting up a field hospital at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for the expected number of patients.
Many doctors fear they will not get enough supplies and other support to help the number of victims. They are fighting a virus that threatens them, and their families, every time they see a patient.
Krajewski is 31. He completed his medical training two years ago. He works nights at St. Bernard Parish Hospital, just east of New Orleans. Krajewski lives with his wife, Genevieve and their son, Cal, who is three weeks old. The doctor removes his clothes before entering his house. He puts his glasses and phone into a special cleaning device and goes to wash himself immediately.
"I come home – and I'm horrified," Krajewski said.
Doctors across the New Orleans area are calling other doctors in New York and Seattle to ask for information about the virus. They exchange ideas on how to put two patients on a single ventilator. Some health workers have moved to temporary housing so they will not infect their families at home, said Joseph Kanter. He is an emergency department doctor and a top public health official for the New Orleans area.
'It can happen to me'
In the United States there are more than 141,000 people infected with the new coronavirus. COVID-19 has killed more than 2,500 in the country.
Older patients are at the greatest risk. But, some Louisiana doctors say they have been surprised by the severity of cases among younger people who have just one underlying health problem. Some patients in their 30s or 40s have been quickly put on life support, said Jeff Elder. He is an emergency doctor at University Medical Center in New Orleans.
These cases worry doctors, especially those who are young themselves.
"You...think, ‘If it is happening to him, it can happen to me,'" said Elder, who is 40.
‘It's not that hard to understand'
Louisiana's rising infection rates mean some hospitals will have to start refusing patients in the next week. Governor Edwards hopes the statewide efforts to avoid social contact will show results. In his daily news briefing the governor has become increasingly angry about people who continue to go out in public.
"It's not that hard to understand!" Edwards said on Friday. "He said the path the area was on, in his words "takes us to a place where we cannot meet the demands on our health care system."
Krajewski decided early in college to become a doctor because of what he described as a hero complex. That has all changed in the last few days. He has put about 12 patients on life support. Only one has recovered so far. Five have died.
"There is a sense of gravity when you know you are one of the last people that will talk to somebody," Krajewski said.
I'm Jonathan Evans.
The Reuters News agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
fever – n. the hot forehead that occurs when the body's temperature rises
ventilator – n. a medical device that assists breathing
quarantine – v. to put a person separate so he does not spread illness
gravity – n. a very serious condition