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‘It’s just really haunting’: A Mat-Su doctor describes patients dying with COVID-19

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 4:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Dr. Thomas Quimby grew up in Eagle River. After medical school he returned home to Alaska and started treating patients at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center as the medical director of the emergency department. Some of his patients remember him as a kid and call him “Tommy.”

These days most of his time is spent with COVID-19 patients. He says that on average, about 40 coronavirus patients arrive every day.

“When people get really sick and they have to get admitted most of the time it’s because they’re having trouble breathing,” Quimby said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize one of the worst feelings you can have is that sensation of not being able to breathe. And to see the panic and desperation in people’s eyes over and over again, it’s really emotionally draining.”

According to data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, 83 people in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have died with COVID-19. The state has reported a total 570 Alaska resident deaths and 22 nonresident deaths that have been related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began in Alaska in March 2020.

The Mat-Su is the least vaccinated of Alaska’s major regions, according to the state health department, with 41.4% of eligible residents there fully vaccinated.

Quimby said by the time a COVID-19 patient arrives at the emergency department, their health has declined dramatically.

“They are having such trouble breathing, they can’t usually talk to you, very much the desperation and panic you see in their eyes, it’s just really haunting. And usually at that point, we have no choice but to intubate them, put a breathing tube in, and put them on a ventilator,” Quimby said. “One, because we can’t keep their oxygen levels up, and two they are just so miserable that it’s just inhumane to let them stay like that. So to stand over someone getting ready to do that, looking at them knowing that this may be the last time that they’re ever conscious, is a really awful feeling that I wish people could understand how devastating and how tragic that is.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital, the patient can’t have their family with them.

“To be alone with someone without their family, in their last minutes, I can’t even describe how awful that is,” Quimby said.

The state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard shows that 58.6% of eligible Alaska residents there are fully vaccinated, and 63.7% have gotten an initial vaccine shot. Alaska still has the highest rate of new cases per capita in the country.

“Knowing and seeing firsthand, time after time, after time, that these people are unvaccinated feels extra tragic and sad,” Quimby said.

Quimby says health care workers often deal with their own PTSD because of the pandemic and that it’s frustrating to see people debate the benefits of vaccinations and the devastating impacts of COVID-19.

“Worse than watching someone die, because they’re not conscious at that point,” he said. “We’re doing CPR. There’s a lot going on, is those moments before they get intubated. Where it’s the last conscious moment they may have in their life. And they’re looking up at you, getting ready to do that procedure, and knowing that that may be the last thing they see. It’s really, really heart wrenching.”

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