Calling family members for a video call with their relative who was seriously ill with the coronavirus was the most heartbreaking part of being a doctor for Dr. Amritpal Sandhu.
Sandhu, a resident doctor at Saint Joseph in Stockton, California, has worked in many departments in the last year, including emergency and the intensive care units where she tended to Covid-19 patients.
“It is always hard to see a patient pass away, or almost pass away, but it is even harder when their family cannot even be with them. That was the worst — watching a patient deteriorate and giving the family updates. But we cannot do anything more than set up a FaceTime or a video call so that the family can see the patient,” she says. Due to the risk of spreading the virus, Covid-19 patients are kept in isolation and not allowed visits by family members.
Sandhu was born in London and moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was one-year-old, but her family originally hails from Punjab in India. She is an MD from the American University of Antigua and an MPH from the National University in San Diego.
Sandhu was motivated to pursue medicine due to a personal tragedy. She lost her father to a heart attack while she was teenager. He was 42, and left behind a wife and three young children.
“He was young, lean, vegetarian, and non alcoholic. He passed away within 30 minutes,” says Sandhu. “That is what motivated me to go into primary care.” She also liked it because she could help people stay on top of their physical, their screening to avoid a premature demise.
It is this motivation that keeps pushing her, never wanting to quit. Sandhu, who works 60-80 hours per week at the hospital, said that even during the initial days of the pandemic when not much was known about the virus and the ways to treat it, she was never scared to go to work. “I was driven and motivated to keep going to work. I never once felt like I should quit. It was more like how can I be safe so that I don’t infect people,” said.
In March 2020, Sandhu was posted in the ICU when Covid-19 patients started coming in. She was moved to the emergency department.
“We just saw everybody that came into the door,” she says. “That’s very hard because you don’t know if they have Covid or not.”
Sandhu said that the pandemic caught doctors and hospitals by surprise. The hospital Sandhu works at started with adequate supplies at the outset of the pandemic, but those were soon depleted as more cases flowed in. It took a couple of months for things to stabilize. By June the hospital was able to restock supplies, she says.
“We were facing a shortage of PPE in the beginning,” Sandhu says. “We didn’t have N95 and we had to reuse our N95s. We didn’t have gloves and sometimes we wouldn’t have enough sanitary wipes.”
Sandhu lives with her husband, their child, his parents, her brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and their three children. She says she was scared of going home after dealing with so many infected people and passing the virus on to her family.
“Everybody got to stay at home but as health care workers we had to go to work,” she says. “So we were the ones who were going to bring it (the virus) home to the family.”
The one lesson Sandhu has taken from the experience is to be humble since medicine is ever-evolving and doctors have to be students all their lives.
“We still don’t know everything,” she says. “We still cannot guarantee any outcomes. We are always learning. We are always going to be students.”