The mounting toll

Dr. Jyotir Mehta is director of the Intensive Care Unit at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia, one of the world's worst hotspots in the coronavirus pandemic. Mehta is also a lung doctor. ICUs take the most critically ill patients in a hospital, including those on ventilators.  As ICU director Mehta took the call from one of his doctors one day at the beginning of March that began Phoebe's pandemic: when they learned that a patient in the hospital had a family member with COVID-19, and probably was ill with the disease himself. (Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)
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Dr. Jyotir Mehta is director of the Intensive Care Unit at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia, one of the world's worst hotspots in the coronavirus pandemic. Mehta is also a lung doctor. ICUs take the most critically ill patients in a hospital, including those on ventilators. As ICU director Mehta took the call from one of his doctors one day at the beginning of March that began Phoebe's pandemic: when they learned that a patient in the hospital had a family member with COVID-19, and probably was ill with the disease himself. (Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)

Patients deteriorate mere hours after going to hospital

The man couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen as he lay for days in the hospital. He had a chronic lung condition that required portable oxygen. No one knew at that moment in early March 2020 he also had the new coronavirus.

Shortly before doctors connected the dots and called his a presumptive case of COVID-19, the man was transferred from the facility, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, at his family’s request and was hospitalized at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in metro Atlanta.

When the patient died there March 12, he was believed to be the first COVID-19 fatality in Georgia — until postmortem testing confirmed a March 5 victim.

That was 252 COVID-19 deaths ago for Dr. Jyotir Mehta and his team, which had treated the 67-year-old in Phoebe Putney’s ICU.

ExploreReturn to the COVID timeline: A year of loss

Shortly after the man left, the floodgates opened at the Albany hospital. Patients able to walk in would deteriorate so fast that by the time their workup was complete they were on 100% oxygen, requiring intubation with a ventilator. In that first wave, the ER told the ICU: These patients are coming in, they say they can’t breathe, they’re terribly sick. One died in the ER before even getting to the ICU. The ICU ran out of ventilators.

“You see people crashing. The young people crashing in front of you, within hours or days. Talking to you — and then decompensating and dying,” Mehta said.

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Dr. Jyotir Mehta says that he doesn’t count the deaths from COVID-19. “It’s kind of a numbing feeling” as they mount, he said. “People are passing away.” (Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)

Credit: Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System

Dr. Jyotir Mehta says that he doesn’t count the deaths from COVID-19. “It’s kind of a numbing feeling” as they mount, he said. “People are passing away.” (Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)
Caption
Dr. Jyotir Mehta says that he doesn’t count the deaths from COVID-19. “It’s kind of a numbing feeling” as they mount, he said. “People are passing away.” (Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)

Credit: Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System

Credit: Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System

Families were admitted together. That normally happens rarely, maybe after a car crash. “But here was one family after another family,” Mehta said. “And you can’t tell the other family member that your loved one has died. Because they are battling.”

Mehta doesn’t count the deaths. “It’s kind of a numbing feeling” as they mount, he said. “People are passing away.”

And it’s unpredictable. A 90-year-old who made it out alive. And a 30-year-old who didn’t.

He doesn’t know what will happen to the patients he greets. One man came in to get checked out and was surprised to be admitted. He gave Mehta a phone number and asked him to call his nearest relative 60 miles away and explain: Both the man and his wife were now in the hospital and their kids were home alone. The relative needed to come get them. Mehta called the number.

“I have never faced that sort of situation in my life,” he said.

“When you’re working you’re doing one after another thing,” Mehta said. “But the end of the day, I really feel sad.”

ExploreReturn to the COVID timeline: A year of loss

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