MEXICO CITY >> When Dr. Juan Antonio Salas finishes his shifts in coronavirus wards at two Mexico City public hospitals, his work is not done.
The health effects of COVID-19 often persist long after a patient is discharged. So instead of taking a well-deserved rest, Salas follows up with survivors of the disease who are still dealing with the physical and psychological trauma at home.
The 25-year-old lung specialist volunteers his limited free time visiting patients — a 92-year-old woman who spent nearly a month intubated and lived to tell about it; a pregnant mother who saw death all around her while awaiting her baby’s arrival.
Helping people recover mentally and emotionally from the trauma of serious illness and hospitalization isn’t something Mexico’s public health system can handle. The government reported more than 15,300 COVID-19 deaths in the country as of Wednesday, and has previously acknowledged that the toll is probably higher than the official count.
So Salas decided to do what he can.
“Seeing so many people die, seeing so many people intubated, leaves them with a post-traumatic stress that after they’re discharged they don’t know how to deal with at home,” said Salas, who is also expert in thanatology, the study of death. “So they needed the emotional support.”
During the visits he checks his former patients’ health, answers their questions and perhaps most importantly offers a friendly ear.
There’s an emotional benefit for Salas as well. “It’s really gratifying to see patients later, see them smile, see them well, stable, with their family,” he said.
Salas started making the visits around the middle of May and is now checking in regularly with 17 ex-patients. Sometimes he has to reschedule when his work shifts run long, as Mexico City goes through what officials are calling its most difficult days of the pandemic.
It’s all smiles when Salas arrives. He wears just a simple surgical mask rather than the full protective gear he dons in the hospital. Sometimes he removes the mask if he feels it’s safe.
“Wearing the face shield, the glasses, makes them feel like they’re still sick and that can hurt the self-esteem of those who are discharged,” he said.
He knows from personal experience how important human contact is for seriously ill patients.
When his little brother was fatally stricken with cancer, the caring words of the oncologist treating him were of tremendous emotional support. Salas remembers how after the doctor discovered he was studying medicine, he gave him the stethoscope he used to check his brother the last time.
“There were a lot of people there for me when I needed them,” Salas said. “The least I can do is be there for those people who need me now.”
Salas has seen and felt it all in the past months — the stress, fear, anger and tears. At times he thought about walking away when the tools he needed didn’t arrive. On one occasion, he absorbed blows from a family who attacked him because they didn’t want their child moved into intensive care.
That’s why visiting those who won the fight against COVID-19 gives him a little hope, especially now as the situation grows worse.
“For the past 20 days, there hasn’t been a single discharge and the deaths are constant,” he said of the 70 patients he cares for in one hospital and 50 in another. “So to see those who survived, know that they’re well, is the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.”