Life on the COVID frontline

By Dr. Grayson Westfall (Yuma County native)

The day I received that piece of paper declaring that I was a medical doctor was one of the proudest days of my professional life. I had worked so hard. I was finally a physician. I took my Hippocratic Oath to treat the sick to the best of my ability; and I couldn’t wait to make a difference.
In my 13 years of practice, I have definitely had good days and struggles. I’ve celebrated with patients who were finally pain free. I’ve witnessed critically ill patients make complete recoveries. And, for my youngest patients, I helped their “owies” go away. I am proud of the care I’ve provided over the course of my career. With all the joys and disappointments, absolutely nothing prepared me for 2020.
I am a proud member of the Tanana Valley Clinic team. During the past nine months, our clinic has been ground zero for Fairbanks’ COVID-19 assessment, diagnosis and patient care. My colleagues and I have seen the true impact of COVID-19 on our community.
To explain the impact, I should start with what life used to be like. I used to arrive for my shift wearing my blue scrubs, with my personal stethoscope around my neck. Now, I arrive in my normal clothes. I get changed into my blues and use the stethoscopes left in each exam room. Over my scrubs, I wear a gown, which is made from non-breathable material. I put on my mask and shape the top to fit around my nose. From that moment on, I am breathing filtered air. It is hot, uncomfortable, almost suffocating, but it keeps me safe. I also wear a face shield. Finally, I put on tight gloves, which go over the sleeves of my gown, sealing me in. I put this ensemble on to enter the exam room and take it off and place it in a bin before I leave; it is a necessary step in order to minimize the transfer of the virus between patients.
In addition to the long queues of patients we normally serve, we are now treating an influx of very sick COVID-19 patients. I’ve reassured patients who were critically ill and struggling to breathe. I’ve comforted family members who were scared, confused and looking for answers. I’ve questioned myself — am I doing enough for my patients who are counting on me? And I’ve experienced the devastating loss of special patients.
The word I’d use to describe the current COVID-19 crisis is “sad.” I feel sad that patients can only see my eyes behind the barrier of my glasses and a piece of plastic. They cannot see me smile to try and cheer them up, and they cannot see my heartache when I am forced to deliver bad news.
Many of the patients we are seeing are older and hard of hearing; they cannot read my lips to help with the understanding of what I am saying. I cannot hold their hand to provide them with the reassurance they need. And, of course, the greatest sadness comes from seeing so much sickness and even death.
Skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers are reported each day on the nightly news, but most people hear them with detachment. At my job, we don’t have that option. We are living the devastation of this virus. Devastation for our patients. Devastation for our staff. Devastation for the significant strain on our local, state and national health care systems.
However, despite this devastation, I remain hopeful. On Thursday, Dec. 17, I received my first COVID-19 vaccine. I was emotional. It’s been a long nine months. That quick and easy shot in my arm was meaningful to me in so many ways. First, the vaccine represents hope that better days are ahead. Second, the vaccine reminded me that science matters. The speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, thoroughly tested and readied for use is one of the most impressive scientific feats in history. Finally, the vaccine represented relief. We will soon have a way to keep our patients and communities safe from the virus.
When it’s your turn to roll up your sleeve to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, I urge you to do so for yourself, your family, your friends and for the health care providers who are continuing to fight each day on the front lines. In May 2007, I took that Hippocratic Oath to treat the sick to the best of my ability. The best of my ability in 2021 is to encourage you to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Grayson Westfall works at Tanana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s a Yuma County kid, attending elementary school in Yuma and graduating from Wray high school in 1994.