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Colorado doctor finds hope while battling coronavirus in New York City: “I think we can do this”

Dr. Comilla Sasson has learned many lessons on the front lines of COVID-19, including how to stay positive

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Dr. Comilla Sasson, a Colorado physician, photographed at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, where she is helping treat coronavirus patients.

Dr. Comilla Sasson didn’t tell her husband when she applied for a 30-day placement treating coronavirus patients in New York City.

As an emergency medical physician at several Colorado hospitals and vice president of science and innovation for emergency cardiovascular care at the American Heart Association, Sasson knew it would be risky.

She knew family and friends would disagree with her decision, and that she wouldn’t get to hug her kids, ages 3 and 5, until weeks after she got home because of quarantine protocol.

But Sasson couldn’t sit idly watching her colleagues in the medical community struggle, or field questions she couldn’t answer from loved ones concerned about COVID-19. So on April 12, she boarded a plane bound for the Big Apple.

“We’re in an opinion-rich area and a data-free zone. It’s really, really disconcerting to me as a doctor because I feel like I should know the answer,” said Sasson, who lives in Lakewood. “I don’t know how to treat this. I don’t know how to cure this. I don’t know how to prevent this. I don’t know how to keep everyone else safe.”

Sasson joined the ranks at a temporary hospital built at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. It operates more like a military field hospital than a traditional medical facility, she said, where doctors, nurses and technicians often forgo their typical routines to “do what needs to be done.” Sometimes that means conducting physical therapy in lieu of a specialist or cleaning the floors.

Sasson is on the clock for 30 consecutive days, working 12 or 13 hours each shift. Though the days’ tasks may vary, her mission remains the same.

“Our role is to help when there’s the next wave, which I think there will be,” she said.

New York has been one of the hardest hit areas in the United States, with more than 134,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and an estimated 14,427 attributable deaths, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Comparatively, the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment reports nearly 10,500 confirmed cases in the state and 486 deaths.

When she arrived in New York City, Sasson expected to encounter droves of sick residents keeling over on the sidewalks and to be tending to critically ill patients. The reality has been much quieter, she said, not only because the city has seemingly weathered its surge, but also because treating COVID-19 is unlike managing other diseases.

In an emergency situation, for example, doctors aim to fix or rehabilitate patients and send them home quickly, limiting their length of stay, Sasson said. That’s not an option with COVID-19.

“This is a very, very different disease process in that people may just need oxygen,” she said. “If they get to the hospital stage, they will be here a very long time. So you have to kind of change your mindset about that. The best thing I can do for a patient right now is keep them comfortable so they can breathe.”

For 10 days, Sasson has been in the “hot zone” — where medical professionals treating coronavirus patients must wear full personal protection equipment — but it’s already been an incredible learning experience, full of lessons about optimizing resources and coordinating personnel that she plans to bring home to help deal with any surge that comes in Colorado.

But perhaps the most important thing she’s unearthed is something she didn’t expect: hope.

“I came in very anxious, very afraid, very nervous, very kind of down on the world,” Sasson said. “What I’ve realized over the course of the last 10 days is I think we can do this.”

Sasson recalls helping an older patient, who had been treated for a month, prepare for discharge. Thinking back on their reaction to the news they were able to go home almost brings her to tears.

“People can get better and we have the tools and resources,” she said. “We’re in a boxing match right now. This is round one. Who knows how many rounds this might go. We need to be ready for the next wave because it’s coming. And if we can control how hard we get punched and we don’t end up with another TKO, then I think we’re going to do OK.”

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