COVID-19 caregiver series: HaysMed doctor shares frontline experience

Linn Ann Huntington, Special to The Hays Daily
Dr. Edgardo Olvera-Lopez, a physician at HaysMed, prepares to access a computer file on one of his patients. (Submitted photo/HaysMed).

Editor’s Note: Health care professionals at HaysMed recently shared with The Hays Daily News some of their experiences treating COVID-19 patients over the past few months. This is Part 1 of a three-part series in which a physician and two RN’s share with the community what it has been like.

Dr. Edgardo Olvera-Lopez, a physician at HaysMed, said that as a doctor he always knew that he would have to deliver bad news to patients on occasion.

“Unfortunately, during the pandemic, I’ve had more conversations about life and death than I’d ever imagined, and no matter how much training and/or experience you have, it never gets easier," Olvera said. "It can be emotionally draining.”

Recently, Olvera discussed, in an email interview, what it has been like treating COVID-19 patients at HaysMed for the past seven months.

That’s when he joined the staff at HaysMed. Olvera is trained in internal medicine, but at HaysMed he works as a “hospitalist.” This means he does not see patients on an appointment basis. He only treats patients who are admitted to the hospital.

According to information provided by HaysMed, the regional health center admitted 475 patients with COVID between April 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021. Of those, 75 patients died of the disease.

These statistics do not correspond to the numbers provided by the Ellis County Health Department during that same period because the county only reports infections and deaths of county residents. HaysMed’s figures represent all patients admitted, many of whom come to HaysMed from other counties, said Gayla Wichman, HaysMed marketing director.

Olvera was a third-year resident in New York City when the pandemic hit in February of 2020. “That translated into working at least six days a week, which may not be that uncommon in residency, particularly during the first year and/or those in the surgical fields,” he said. The last four months he was in New York City he worked 12-hour shifts or longer.

Then he arrived at HaysMed. The peak time for most COVID admissions to HaysMed came in November 2020, Wichman said.

Olvera said that most of the COVID patients he has treated have been in their 60s and 70s. “However, we have had some really sick patients in their 40s and 50s, and I remember seeing one in their 20s, as well,” he said.

Wichman said the average age of COVID patient death at HaysMed has been 74. Of the total deaths, 52 percent have been male and 48 percent female, she said.

On Nov. 23, 2020, Wichman released a news release on the spiking number of COVID admissions to HaysMed.

“We are licensed for 207 beds at HaysMed,” the news release said, “but we have a total of 113 beds available for use.

“However, just because beds are available doesn’t mean we have enough staff to care for all the patients in 113 beds. The number of patients we can care for depends on the acuity (critical nature) of the patient and the number of staff available. The critical number that is most important is the number of staff available,” the news release added.

Wichman also discussed the hospital’s policy on diverting or transferring patients to other facilities.

“If we are at capacity, we request to transfer a patient to another hospital. It is increasingly difficult to find a hospital that can accept a patient because they, too, are experiencing high census due to COVID,” the release stated. “This can affect COVID-19 patients as well as other medical needs including heart attack, stoke or trauma.”

HaysMed during this time was receiving requests for transfers from health systems as far away as Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Nebraska, she said.

The hospital’s current policy allows one person per day to visit an in-patient. That visitor must wear a mask at all times and not have a fever of 100 or more or have other cold or flu-like symptoms. While the policy is designed to prevent transmission of the COVID virus, the policy has presented challenges for patients, family members and hospital staff.

Olvera said, “Despite having the opportunity to use technology to allow patients to see their families or vice versa via Face Time or Zoom, it’s been challenging for use to be able to deliver accurate information over the phone, particularly of those who are critically ill, and, at the same time, try to maintain their faith and hope without setting unrealistic expectations.”

The doctor praised the nurses at HaysMed and the work they do with the COVID patients.

“The way they treat our patients is outstanding, and it deserves recognition. I can see their professionalism, compassion, and their commitment to treating patients with that humane touch," Olvera said. "That makes a big difference, whether you are talking about patients successfully recovering or patients who are heading in the other direction. You are certain that patients have someone that cares and comforts them at all times.”

Olvera said the best way that community members can support the doctors and nurses at HaysMed is to simply follow recommended Centers for Disease Control guidelines: wear a mask, wash one’s hands frequently, socially distance, avoid unnecessary trips and gatherings, and get the vaccine.

“It’s worth mentioning,” he said, “that we’ll have to keep following these preventive measures even after getting the vaccine until we have more information in the future.”

Wichman said that HaysMed also has a procedure in place whereby members of the community may send heartfelt messages of appreciation and encouragement to hospital staff.

Cards and letters may be sent to HaysMed Volunteer Services, P.O. Box 8100, Hays, KS 67601. Email messages of encouragement may go to nmihm@kumc.edu. Well-wishers may specify that their message go to a specific or general type of department or unit, or just say it’s for anyone who needs a word of encouragement.