SF General staff members reflect on their 'life-altering' year under COVID

Not many Americans know what it was like to be on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, chief medical officer Lukejohn Day and chief nursing officer Terry Dentoni lived the pandemic every day, and described their experiences as "life-altering."

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

SFGATE: You two have seen the disease up close and personal in a way not many others have. What was that like?

Dentoni: It’s been life-altering to have seen what we’ve seen. Every day you're going into the ICU, with pictures of the patients lined up on the windows because we wanted to put a face to each patient.

All of the equipment for patients is kept in the hallway, and it's almost like a synchronized swim where all of the nurses and doctors would go down the line and perform care. It was synchronized and deliberate, and having all of the pictures outside the windows humbled us, because we said to ourselves, "That's someone’s loved one, and we have to take care of them."

Because the hospital permitted no visitors and no family, our doctors and nurses had to provide both clinical care and emotional care. For our medical surge units where patients were not as sick so they were not ventilated and able to talk, our doctors were their only way to the outside world. Patients would say to us, "I may never see family again, so please let them know we love them."

Those were the things I remember. Those emotional components changed the face of medicine here.

Day: The things that stand out to me are the different ways of delivering care we had to figure out, in terms of limited PPE, and having no visitors and no family members for interactions in care.

Also, there was constantly changing information across the city, state and country. At the beginning, it was mask-wearing and surface transmission and now it's vaccines and variants. It seems things are always changing, and seeing our staff here adapt was incredible. That’s the one thing I’ll take away from this. It's the resilience of our staff at the beginning, middle and now end.

SFGATE: San Francisco was largely spared the worst of the pandemic in the spring and summer waves, but what happened in the winter? How bad did things get then?

Day: As you pointed out, San Francisco was really spared in first two waves, but from Thanksgiving to New Year's, we saw a dramatic increase not only here but all across the city. On top of that, winter is typically a busy time for non-COVID hospital visits, but our team had already gone through two surges so we were well-prepared in the ICU and on normal floors for both COVID and non-COVID patients. We knew the workflows, we knew how to surge up and close operations in other areas if need be.

Our people were very comfortable in doing that, so even though our numbers were much higher in the winter, our teams here were very well-prepared for it, and our teams had tremendous outcomes in caring for patients. Because we had those two previous surges, it allowed us to prepare.

Dentoni: Our number of hospitalized patients went as high as the 70s — which is huge when compared to before — but what also made a difference was the vaccine became available. So our staff members got the vaccine and were so grateful, they were so were happy and