Oxygen, intubation, regret: Alaska ICU doctor provides a glimpse behind the walls

woman in lab coat and mask stands at podium with others behind her.
Dr. Leslie Gonsette, at podium, was among the health care workers who spoke at the Anchorage Assembly meeting Setp. 13. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Dr. Leslie Gonsette, who works in the Intensive Care Unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center, says she feels like she’s living in two different worlds.

One is at the overloaded hospital, where she and her colleagues are united in battle — “World War III,” she calls it — against a deadly pandemic.

The other is outside the hospital, where she sees Alaskans who won’t help by getting vaccinated or even wearing a mask at the supermarket.

The medical staff that practices at Providence declared Tuesday that they are in crisis and have begun rationing health care.

RELATED: Alaska’s largest hospital now rationing care due to COVID surge

Gonsette did a Zoom session with a patient to give reporters a glimpse of what it’s like to work there.

“I started my day off with one of my patients down the hall in the intermediate COVID ICU that unfortunately got intubated,” she said. “The other one is recovering next to me.”

Pablo Diaz-Fontao, a 56-year-old Alaska Airlines employee, said he didn’t think he’d catch COVID-19.

“I know I’m very strong,” he said. “‘I don’t need the vaccine. The virus don’t touch me… ‘ So many things, you know.”

Just a few hours before, he was on a high-pressure machine that pushed oxygen into his lungs. But he improved. By Thursday afternoon he was on low-pressure oxygen, through a nasal tube. He spoke from a chair in his hospital room, wearing a gown. He’s been in the hospital almost a week.

Pablo Diaz-Fontao, 56, landed at Providence Alaska Medical Center with COVID-19. He says he didn’t get vaccinated because he thought the virus wouldn’t hurt him. (Screen shot from Zoom)

Diaz-Fontao, originally from communist Cuba, said he still doesn’t like the idea of the government telling him to get a shot, but he said he regrets he didn’t get vaccinated earlier.

Gonsette said she regrets that, too.

“Because he’s here alone for six days. And I don’t know when he can go home, ” she said. “He’s finally made good improvements. But it’s sad that you have to suffer before you get the picture.”

RELATED: Alaska has one of the worst rates of COVID in the country

Gonsette said as soon as her intubated patient left for the ICU, that bed in intermediate intensive care was filled with another COVID patient, up from the Emergency Department, who needed high-pressure oxygen.

“And next to him, a 32-year-old, also admitted, and another one down the hall who is actively dying with a family outside of the room,” she said. “I’ve had to support my nurses during all of this.”

Gonsette said people outside the hospital are just living their lives, oblivious to how bad it is. They don’t have to hold the hands of dying COVID patients, or talk to their family member. She said she feels an obligation to tell them what she’s seeing. She also pleaded for the public to help by getting the shot, even if they feel they aren’t at risk.

“You may be one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get it. But we live in a society, and everything you do will affect the person next to you,” she said. “So the one thing you can do in this war is get the vaccine.”

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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