A pregnant doctor navigates COVID-19 fight in low-income Los Angeles

Co-director of the intensive care unit at CommonSpirit's Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center, Dr. Zafia Anklesaria, 35, who is seven months pregnant, puts on a protective suit to intubate a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at the hospital where she works, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

After putting a coronavirus patient onto a ventilator to help him to breathe, Dr. Zafia Anklesaria noted to herself that her baby never kicked during emergency procedures.

It was not until she was back in her office and had removed most of her protective equipment that he made his presence known.

Anklesaria is seven months pregnant with her first child. The 35-year works as a co-director of the intensive care unit at CommonSpirit’s Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center, a downtown Los Angeles hospital that mostly serves lower-income Hispanic and African-American populations.

The hospital’s 22-bed COVID-19 intensive care unit has been at or close to capacity since the end of March. Some nurses are pulling 24-hour shifts due to the high volume of patients in critical condition, she said.

“The socio-economic class that we serve, people tend to live in close quarters, they don’t really have the privilege of good social distancing, and they are tending to get more infected as a result,” Anklesaria said.

People living in the highest poverty areas of Los Angeles county are dying of COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of those in the wealthiest areas, according to data from the county’s department for public health.

Anklesaria’s 12-hour shift starts at 7 am. She works four days a week on average in the ICU and another one to two days doing pulmonary consultations with patients.

After getting an update from the night shift she begins her rounds, donning and doffing her personal protective equipment as she enters and exits patients’ rooms. Nurses check on her regularly, making sure she is hydrated, properly protected and takes breaks to eat.

She worries, though, that the baby will hear the stress and frustration in her voice as she goes about her day.

A worried husband

One May morning she had good news – one of the hospital’s first COVID-19 patients, an employee who had spent almost four weeks on the ventilator, was ready to have his tracheostomy tube removed.

“Yay, you did it, you are officially liberated!” she told 65-year old Vicente Arredondo as she removed the tube.

When she returned home, exhausted, her husband Aryan Jafari, 30, held back the dog as she dashed to the shower. She initially brought up the possibility of isolating herself from him, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

He worries about her and the baby, but “he is fortunately understanding of me wanting to and needing to work,” she said. “This is a job we sign up for. If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”

Jafari is an engineer and best convinced by data, so she has sent him studies suggesting pregnant women and babies are not at greater risk from the coronavirus. She has promised her family if any evidence to the contrary emerges, she will step away from the ICU.

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