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Durango doctor returns from NYC front lines

‘It makes me grateful to be where I am’
Sarah Gueli, an anesthesiologist with Animas Surgical Hospital in Durango, on an empty flight to New York City, where she worked night shifts in an intensive care unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

The empty flight, the near-deserted airport and the traffic-free streets through Queens, New York City, are some of the surreal sights that greeted Durango resident Sarah Gueli when she arrived in April at the United States’ epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gueli, an anesthesiologist with Animas Surgical Hospital, traveled to the hard-hit city from April 9 to April 18 to help medical staff at Elmhurst Hospital. She worked nights in the intensive care units. In addition to the hospital’s two regular ICUs, it established two additional units to care for COVID-19 patients.

“It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally,” she said. “And this is still going to be such a long road for them. It’s hard to be where I am, and to be so grateful.”

Gueli, who is originally from New York, received her medical training there and is still licensed in the state. She received a call from the New York State Department of Health asking if she would be willing to assist.

Sarah Gueli, an anesthesiologist with Animas Surgical Hospital, volunteered to travel to New York City to assist medical providers at Elmhurst Hospital in its fight against COVID-19.

As an anesthesiologist, Gueli typically works in an operating room but also has extensive training in critical care medicine. She said anesthesiologists are often needed when fighting a respiratory illness like the novel coronavirus because they routinely intubate patients, something that has become common in caring for critical COVID-19 patients.

With expanded ICUs and an influx of patients, Gueli said she would use 10 to 20 different types of intubation kits and ventilators during a night shift, instead of the consistent setup typically seen in ICUs. Some resources, like chest X-ray machines, were limited and could take many hours procure. Often, doctors would rely on a physical exam for diagnoses, Gueli said.

“It made you understand the sheer volume of patients you were dealing with that you were forced to use all of these different styles of machines,” she said.

Sidewalk chalk showing support for medical staff outside New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

Throughout her time at the hospital, Gueli said she was impressed with the doctors who have been on the front lines of New York City’s crisis since the beginning, as well as the team of volunteer medical providers who showed up to help, including military personnel.

The spirit of support and generosity was also appreciated, she said. There were messages of encouragement written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, food donated to the hospital, and her flight and hotel stay were covered.

Gueli said before she saw the virus up close, she thought of it as a disease that affects mostly people who have pre-existing conditions.

“Then I saw how sick these people are, and I took care of people in their late 30s and 40s,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know about this virus and it was kind of scary.”

To honor patients hospital staff were able to save, Elmhurst began sending each recovered COVID-19 patient home with a daffodil and planting another in the hospital garden.

Sidewalk chalk showing support for medical staff outside New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

COVID-19 patients who die in the hospital do so without their families present. The danger of spread is too great.

“It’s hard,” Gueli said. “You feel like you’re the only person there to hold a hand. You have to be the doctor and the family.”

With states beginning to loosen restrictions and nonessential businesses opening with limited capacity, public health officials are still advising social-distancing policies and the use of masks in public.

“I know it’s asking a lot to continue social distancing, but when this disease hits, it hits hard. We’re lucky we’ve been spared the worst of it,” Gueli said.

Since returning from New York City, Gueli said she quarantined for a week and recently took an antibody test. It was negative. But for Gueli, the transition back amounts to something akin to survivor’s guilt.

“Now that I know what my colleagues are dealing with on the front lines, it makes me grateful to be where I am,” she said.

lweber@durangoherald.com

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