ICU doctor explains what working in Austin hospitals is like during pandemic

As COVID-19 cases climb in the Austin area and across Texas, an ICU doctor is begging people to take precautions. 

Dell Medical School Dr. Shailaja Hayden said she worries the level of care for patients could suffer if the Austin community doesn't take guidelines seriously. 

The conversation was held during a Facebook live broadcast with Travis County Judge Andy Brown. Hayden, a pulmonary and critical care consultant, was speaking from the room of one of the patients she recently lost to COVID-19. 

"We are tired. We are emotionally and physically tired," Hayden said, speaking from the frontlines of the pandemic at Dell Medical School.

Dr. Hayden explained the toll caring for Austin's sickest patients is taking on hospital staff. "What we’re seeing is like a house fire. I mean the suffering, the magnitude of suffering in the ICU right now, it's like nothing I have experienced before," said Hayden. 

Because she specializes in the respiratory system, Hayden said she cared for Austin's first COVID-19 patient in March. "And pretty much every single day since then, I have either taken care of COVID-19 patients, mourned for COVID-19 patients that we have lost... And worried about this nightmare scenario in which we truly are overwhelmed," Hayden said. 

Austin's Interim Health Authority, Dr. Mark Escott, said the numbers are currently trending towards a situation in which hospital staff will be overwhelmed. Although Austin hospitals have been able to help areas like West Texas when they ran out of room for patients, Escott said we can't necessarily rely on them to return the favor.

"Since all of our surrounding regions are also in bad shape, there may be nowhere to transport anybody and we may wind up in a situation where we have to use less experienced staff in makeshift rooms and that’s a nightmare none of us want to come to," said Hayden.


A statement sent to FOX 7 Austin by a hospital system spokesperson reads:

"Currently, Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David's HealthCare have sufficient staffing and capacity to care for both patients with COVID-19, as well as those with other medical conditions. However, similar to the weeks following Thanksgiving, we are beginning to see an increase of COVID-19 cases in our local communities and in our hospitals following the recent holiday gatherings.

With that in mind, we ask that the public embrace a sense of urgency in following the recommended guidelines of physical distancing, masking and practicing good hand hygiene as we approach the New Year’s Eve holiday. We know these safety measures are not ideal and can be difficult, but they are proven measures to stop the spread of the virus. 

With vaccines now arriving in our state, there is much hope on the horizon. In the meantime, we ask for continued vigilance. The safety and well-being of our community starts with each of us and the decisions we each make. We can all play a role in preventing hospitalizations and ICU admissions while protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our communities."

Dr. Hayden begged young people to take the threat seriously, take precautions, and stay home whenever possible, even during holidays. Because while younger people have a better chance of recovering from the virus, that's not always the way it goes.

"The youngest patient that I have personally lost to COVID-19 was 25 years old and that’s not something I ever want to see again, so I would really put out a plea to the young people that a virtual holiday celebration is kinda lame, but a virtual funeral is a heartbreak," Hayden said. 

Hayden also encouraged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine when they are able to, calling it "our ticket past the pandemic."