Steamboat doctor lends a hand in New York City
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Dr. Dallas Bailes watched New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s television plea for 45,000 medical volunteers, he felt compelled to return to the city where he’d spent his residency in its time of need.
As the medical director at Steamboat Emergency Center, Bailes had seen the volume of patients drop by about 50% with the closure of the ski mountain and the community under lockdown.
“It wasn’t like I was needed here, and I was really needed there,” Bailes said.
There was plenty of staff available to care for patients — COVID-19 related or otherwise.
“So, I cleared my schedule and got a place ticket,” he said.
Bailes contacted the hospital where he used to work in Harlem and began the expedited process of renewing his New York medical credentials.
His first flight was canceled. He switched his ticket to go through Chicago, but that flight was also canceled.
“No one was going to New York,” he said.
So, he booked tickets on separate airlines to get to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The airport and the city itself in was “an absolute ghost town.” The freeways were empty. He was the only person on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“It was really weird — really eerie,” Bailes said.
But inside the hospital, it was the opposite. Bailes described his first two days as like being in a movie about an Ebola outbreak.
Everyone was completely covered in tyvek suits with masks and goggles. There was a line of ambulances around the block. There were no available beds. People who came into emergency rooms for something other than COVID-19 tested positive for the virus more often than not. Patients were on beds in the hallways because there was no place to put them.
Every 15 or 20 minutes, he heard calls for anesthesia, which meant they were about to put a patient on a ventilator.
Bailes said he’d never heard such frequent “code blue” calls — meaning the patient’s heart had stopped. At least 50 people died in those first two days, he said. One of the hospital’s nurses was in the Intensive Care Unit with COVID-19. For two days and two 12-hour shifts, it was complete chaos.
But then, “It was like someone turned off a switch,” Bailes said.
There are a lot of possibilities as to why, he inferred — maybe a lot of the patients had died. Maybe a lot had been discharged or transferred. Maybe they crossed that hump of new infections. Maybe the social distancing impact was kicking in. Whatever had changed, Bailes’ final four shifts were much quieter.
Over the course of about 10 days working six shifts, Bailes gained firsthand experience working with COVID-19 patients, and they weren’t like anything else he had encountered in his career.
For one, some would come in with oxygen levels so low the numbers would normally indicate someone was dead. Typically, respiratory distress is driven by an increase in carbon dioxide, he explained, not as much a decrease in oxygen.
“There’s something unique about this disease,” Bailes, said, in that it preserves a patient’s ability to breath off carbon dioxide, while hindering their ability to breath in oxygen.
Some patients were likely put on a ventilator too quickly, he said. Others didn’t get the attention they needed until it was too late. Decisions had to be made about how to best use available manpower and resources.
Doctors were trying different treatments on different patients — research in real time, which doesn’t happen under normal circumstances — though nothing appeared to be a miracle cure.
Amid the chaos and with still so many things unknown about the virus, “There’s only so much you can do to protocolize medicine,” he said. A lot of rules doctors are accustomed to were simply suspended.
In addition, Bailes learned, “there’s a lot more to this disease than life or death.”
He described people getting off ventilators with permanent lung damage and a 41-year-old Broadway actor who had his leg amputated while on a ventilator.
In just the past few days, new research is showing a prevalence of COVID-19 patients suffering from blood clots and strokes. People in their 30s and 40s, with otherwise mild COVID-19 symptoms, are having strokes, according to studies.
When Bailes arrived back in Steamboat Springs last week, he went into quarantine. He also took a test, which came back negative. He is waiting on another test result to confirm, but he hasn’t exhibited any symptoms.
Comparing Routt County to what he saw in New York City and the current local numbers, “We have every reason to be optimistic,” Bailes said — things here are looking more like the best-case scenario than the worst.
“We are one of the fittest cities in the fittest state and are sparsely populated,” he added. “With access to excellent medical care.” And, people have taken social distancing seriously.
But there are also a lot of vulnerable people, he noted, and it is important for everyone to remain vigilant. As officials remove each level of restrictions, it will likely take several weeks to wait and see if there is an uptick in cases before lifting more restrictions, he said.
Bailes said he did have some friends who questioned his decision to go into a hot zone, saying “But you have a family.”
But for Bailes, that didn’t make him special. “So does everyone in New York,” he replied.
Bailes emphasized the true heroes — those people he worked alongside in New York, who get up every day and go to work in a hot zone. Many are young residents in the middle of their training, he said. They are just showing up and doing their job.
“I didn’t hear a single one complain,” he said.
Another inspiring part of the experience, Bailes said, was listening every evening “at 7 p.m. to a whole city of eight million people clapping and cheering. It brings chills to your skin.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear a mask in indoor, public spaces in Routt County.