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Kaiser Health News reporter Jenny Gold spent eight months following one first-year medical resident working on the front lines of the pandemic.  

Dr. Paloma Marin-Nevarez graduated from the Stanford University medical school in June, right before the virus began its second major surge. She’s one of more than 30,000 new doctors who started residencies in 2020. Just weeks after graduating, Marin-Nevarez began training as an ER doctor at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, one of the areas in California hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Listeners follow Marin-Nevarez as she faces the loneliness and isolation of being a new doctor, working 80 hours a week in the era of masks and social distancing. She also witnesses the inequality of the pandemic, with Latino, Black and Native American people dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates than White people. Marin-Nevarez finds herself surrounded by death and having to counsel families about the loss of loved ones. We view the pandemic through the eyes of a rookie doctor, finding her footing on the front lines of the virus. 

This show originally aired on February 27, 2021.

Dig Deeper

Learn: Physician’s guide to having end-of-life conversations

Credits

Reported by: Jenny Gold | Produced by: Neroli Price | Edited by: Brett Myers, Deborah Anderluh and Taunya English | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson, Ameetra Ganatra, Claire Mullen and Steven Rascón | Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda  | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Heidi de Marco/KHN  | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: Dr. Atul Grover, Tochi Ajiwe and Samantha Gottlieb

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons FoundationDemocracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson. Not long ago I went back home to Florida. I’ve been there during the pandemic, but mostly I stayed away from people. This time was different. I walked into a restaurant, turn the corner and saw some of my best friends. People I’d only been seeing on a computer screen for close to a year, but now we’re all vaccinated.

I wrapped my arms around each of them and held them as long as I could. I didn’t care if it got awkward, it just felt good to be close to people that I love. Collectively, last year was brutal. And while all of us felt some pain, some people saw it up close and personal. Today, we’re going to revisit a show we first brought you back in February. One that follows a new doctor who started her training on the front lines of one of the greatest public health disasters in a century.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:When I [inaudible], good afternoon graduates, families, faculty, and staff.
Al Letson:Back in June of 2020, Paloma Merin-Nevarez spoke at her virtual graduation ceremony at Stanford Med School.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Let’s be real the class of 2020, this is absolutely not the way that we envisioned medical school ending.
Al Letson:Paloma is one of more than 30,000 new doctors who started medical residency last summer, heading out to hospitals and clinics across the country to learn the basics of how to be a doctor, just like they do any year. Except now, those hospitals and clinics were being overrun with the virus.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:This is a lot of pressure on you, and I will be the first to admit that this is scary.
Al Letson:We teamed up with Kaiser Health News and spent eight months checking in on Paloma, as she started working in a community that’s been devastated by COVID. The virus has been deadlier for native American, black and Latino people compared to white people. Latinos are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized and more than twice as likely to die from COVID.

As a doctor in a predominantly Latino part of California, Paloma will confront these disparities firsthand. Reporter, Jenny Gold, from Kaiser Health News picks up the story in the summer of 2020, just as Paloma was about to start at one of the hardest hit areas in California. At the time, the first wave of affections was slowing and the second larger wave was about to begin.
Jenny Gold:I started talking to Paloma right before she started residency. It’s been clear to me, since those very first conversations that she’s a superstar. Stanford graduation speaker, first doctor in her family, former 8th grade science teacher. So, can you start just by introducing yourself, telling me a little bit about you?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yeah. So, my name is Paloma Marin-Nevarez, I have two last names, and I have two last names because I was born in Mexico where people typically [crosstalk]
Jenny Gold:When Paloma was nine, her father died suddenly of a heart attack and her mom decided to move her and her two siblings from Durango, Mexico to Los Angeles, California, where they packed into a one bedroom apartment.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:So that meant that my mom had to raise us as a widow, and pretty much as a single mother, after coming to the United States.
Jenny Gold:Paloma grew up in an almost entirely Latino neighborhood. Her mom, Hortensia, worked two jobs. One at a supermarket and another at a 99 Cent Store and the whole American dream thing, it paid off, Paloma and her siblings, they all earned college degrees.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:The moment I stepped into Williams College, I realized that I was really poor, compared to my extremely wealthy classmates. And that’s when I realized that there’s a ton of social inequity.
Jenny Gold:She sees medicine as a way to heal some of that inequity. So, when it came time to pick where she would do her residency, she thought about where she could make a difference. And she thought about her mom who doesn’t speak English.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:When she goes to the doctor, she’s worried about what might be wrong with her health wise, but she also feels this incredible shame, and not being able to speak the language. And she feels she’s a burden. I feel patients should never feel that way. All they should worry about is how the doctor is going to help them feel better.
Jenny Gold:Only 6% of doctors in California are Latino, compared to nearly 40% of the state’s population. And nationally, Latinos are twice as likely to be uninsured.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I wanted to go to a place where I was needed, first and foremost, this was patient population that I wanted to take care of, and so, it is my privilege and my pleasure to come to Fresno.
Jenny Gold:Fresno is a majority Latino county. It’s part of California, Central Valley, a vast area of farmland in the middle of the state. That’s applies about a quarter of the nation’s produce. This region often has a hard time recruiting healthcare workers.

Paloma went to one of the top med schools in the country. She probably could have had her pick of residency programs, but she wanted to go to Fresno. She was so certain that she bought the sweatshirt before she even found out she’d gotten in.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:All right, everybody.
Jenny Gold:She recorded this Instagram video when she got the news.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Congratulations, you have matched into US, San Francisco, Fresno.
Jenny Gold:When she finishes med school a few months later, Paloma packs up her apartment, gets in the car and starts driving toward Fresno, leaving the Stanford campus gleaming in the rear view mirror. She’s leaving one of the richest communities in the country, Silicon Valley, for one of the poorest. One in three children in Fresno County lives below the poverty line. Many of the people who pick the crops in this area are low wage migrant farm workers. And they keep coming back to these fields, day after day, despite the risks of COVID.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Entering Fresno the first thing that I noticed was just green. A bunch of green, lots of farms, and then eventually, the farm start to become grapevines, and then you know you’re really in the Central Valley when the Trump signs start to come up.
Jenny Gold:California, Central Valley, is a Republican stronghold and the Fresno County sheriff refused to enforce the governor’s mask mandate. By June, 2020, it’s been four months since the first COVID case was recorded in the US, and already more than 100,000 people have died.
Speaker 5:Tonight the country has reached another sobering milestone in the Corona virus pandemics for passing two million cases. In this warning sign, hospitalizations are surging in many states.
Jenny Gold:When I speak to Paloma over Zoom, she’s just settling in to her new apartment in Fresno. So, behind you all your walls are blank. They’re totally white.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yes.
Jenny Gold:When did you move in, and how’s the unpacking going?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I moved in about a week ago. The unpacking has been good, it’s been really exciting.
Jenny Gold:It’s the first time she’s had a place of her own, and she adopts a kitten to keep her company.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:He’s just really adorable, very playful.
Jenny Gold:What’s his name?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:His name is John Charleston Oliver.
Jenny Gold:Wow.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:His given name was Chuck.
Jenny Gold:Paloma is about to start training, to be a fully fledged ER doctor, something she’s been working towards for years.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:In emergency medicine we talk a lot about being the people that run into a burning building when things are breaking down, and when things are chaotic, we are the ones who run in there and try to figure things out.

Let me pull off my parse. How’re you doing this morning?
Speaker 6:I’m doing [crosstalk]
Jenny Gold:On June 26th, 2020, Paloma has her first shift in the hospital.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Here we go. [inaudible].
Speaker 6:All right.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Have a wonderful day. Take care.
Speaker 6:Have a good one.
Jenny Gold:Paloma is working at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno. It’s big, 10 stories high, and 685 beds. It’s a safety net hospital that serves lots of low income and uninsured patients. And it doesn’t take Paloma long to notice how different things are here compared to Stanford.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I’m starting to see just how the shortage of medical providers really translates to patients waiting a very, very long time for care. The waiting room starts to fill up quickly, in the day there’s a hallway where patients wait for care and it’s really hard to see them waiting.
Jenny Gold:For the most part, Paloma’s first few weeks aren’t so different than they’d be any other year. She’s in charge of her own patients, taking their medical histories, performing exams, and coming up with a plan for care. And on a moment’s notice, her supervisor, the attending doctor, could quiz her about pretty much anything. Like, “Tell me the name of every nerve in the hand.”
Paloma Marin-Ne…:So, it’s almost like you have this ginormous hat and it’s just full of facts. And you just have to pull five random facts out of this giant hat. And then, sometimes you’ll get it like, “Wow, this was actually relevant.” And sometimes they won’t.
Jenny Gold:Was there a moment when you were like, “Aah, I don’t feel like a doctor, I’m falling on my face.”
Paloma Marin-Ne…:All the time. Literally, I call myself the CEO of hot mess central. I feel like a train wreck all the time.
Jenny Gold:Reality check here. When I interviewed Paloma supervisor later, she told me Paloma is super organized, definitely not train wreck.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Man, I’ve been told that I’m really harsh on myself, but also, it’s how I cope. I feel like making fun of myself is how I get through things.
Jenny Gold:Early on Paloma’s program tries to protect residents by keeping them away from COVID patients. But that will eventually change, as the pandemic gets worse,
Speaker 7:California hospitals are rushing to make room as they prepare for a surging COVID-19 patients.
Speaker 8:We are seeing a dramatic spike in cases in California over the past 24 hours.
Speaker 9:The White House task force advising hotspots to buckle down.
Jenny Gold:This is the beginning of the second wave of COVID cases in the US. As infection rates climb, the virus catches up with Paloma’s personal life. On July 7th, 2020, during one of our regular check-ins, she breaks the news to me.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Actually, my mom just got COVID.
Jenny Gold:What?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yeah. So my mom tested positive last week. My mom doesn’t like to tell me anything, she doesn’t want me to worry. And I told her, “Hey mom, I need you to talk to me and to tell me the truth.” And she finally did. And the moment when she said, “I’ve lost my sense of taste.” I said, “I’m diagnosing you with COVID right now. I need you to go get a test ASAP.”
Jenny Gold:Her mom’s case is fairly mild, but back at the hospital in Fresno, more and more patients are coming in with severe cases of COVID. PPE is in short supply.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I have been getting the emails from management to always be very thoughtful about the PPE that we’re using, asking us to be very thoughtful about the tests that we’re ordering, so that we can conserve supplies. But it does make me wonder, “What is it going to look like a month from now?” I have this dissonance between me going into work, knowing that we have this incredibly contagious virus and we are respecting it and doing our best to stay safe in the hospital. And then, the general public just frankly, doesn’t really seem to care. Then I think that’s been one of the most disheartening things.
Jenny Gold:In July, protesters organized an anti-mask rally, that takes over a city block in Fresno. They hold signs that read “Honk for Trump.”
Speaker 10:We’re here to protest the tyrannical rules that governor Gavin Newsom has placed on us.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:People just gathered without wearing masks and with their signs that are, “End the tyranny’.
Speaker 10:He said that the number one priority was to flattened the curve. The curve has been flattened.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:And I’m like, “Hope I don’t see you at the hospital, people.” I will now begin dawning my PPE.
Jenny Gold:On July 20th, 2020, Paloma has her first shift in the intensive care unit, just as the second wave of COVID is nearing its peak.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I got my blue gown.
Jenny Gold:The ICU is where the very sickest COVID patients end up and many of them are on ventilators.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I’m already wearing my N95 mask, and then my goggles, ready to go in.
Jenny Gold:Just a few days in Paloma’s time in the ICU, hospitals in the region are so overwhelmed that the air force deploys teams of healthcare workers to help. Paloma works beside them.
Speaker 7:The Central Valley is now the state’s hotspot for COVID-19, as it’s seeing more than double the statewide I positivity rate.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Today is the last day of July, and it is the 12th day, in a row that I’ve been working since I started my ICU rotation. I have been working for two weeks straight without a break, I am absolutely exhausted. I’m so tired.
Al Letson:By the end of July, 2020, the total number of COVID deaths in the US reached 150,000. The most of any country in the world. For first year residents learning to deal with death is a part of becoming a doctor. But for Paloma’s class, death was a constant. She’d been a doctor for just five weeks and was already taking care of some of the sickest patients on the front lines of the pandemic, and things were about to get even harder.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There are so many patients here who have COVID. A 70 year old patient with COVID, 80 year old patient with COVID, 50 year old patient with COVID. It’s just everywhere.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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This episode is supported by Deep Dive with Laura Arnold, a podcast exploring today’s most pressing issues like the politics that stainy gun violence prevention, the accountability crisis in higher education, and creating equal access to birth control. Laura Arnold shares the mic with data-driven experts to examine the elusive fixes for our nation’s broken systems. Just tap your search bar and look for Deep Dive with Laura Arnold. Our thanks to Deep Dive for their support.
Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson. Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, has an idea what medical residency is all about. Working long hard hours for not a lot of money, while carrying an average of $200,000 in medical school debt. Getting dropped in the deep end, making mistakes and learning fast, and doing it as a team, the cohort, but that’s not what it looked like for Dr. Paloma Marin-Nevarez’s class.

New residents like her had to battle COVID in some ways, alone. When she started last year, she couldn’t hang out with other new doctors because of social distancing. Wearing her hospital scrubs, mask and other PPE, colleagues sometimes didn’t recognize her. Paloma says, “That would sting,” since she was at the hospital all the time, working an average of 80 hours a week, who was isolating.

Reporter Jenny Gold of Kaiser Health News started following Paloma in the summer of 2020. Trying to understand what it’s like to be a brand new doctor staring down this pandemic.
Jenny Gold:By early August, Paloma is in the middle of her ICU rotation. COVID is surging in California, Central Valley, and many of the sickest patients are coming to Palomas hospital in Fresno.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I’m here sitting in the cafeteria. I was luckily, able to sign out early today, and rare occasion, because it’s been a long time since I have been out of the hospital and been able to see the sunlight.
Jenny Gold:In the ICU, Paloma’s usually in charge of five patients at a time, which is a lot. An older resident tells her that in non COVID times, she probably would have had just two. She monitors her patients’ ventilators and heart monitors, and checks in on them constantly.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:It’s really hard to say, no, to families that they can’t come visit.
Jenny Gold:Families usually spend a lot of time with loved ones in the ICU. They play music, offer prayers and ask questions of the doctors and nurses. But these days the ICU is a lonely place.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There is a very strict policy right now that the only people who are allowed to visit their loved ones is if they are actively dying.
Jenny Gold:So it falls to Paloma and the other hospital staff to bridge the gap. At the end of every day, she steps into an office and calls her patients’ families to give them an update. The news is usually not good. And these conversations are complicated by all the misinformation that’s floating around at this point.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There was this one particular interaction that I had with a patient’s family member asking me a lot of questions about different treatments that have been on the media, things about hydroxychloroquine.
Speaker 12:Many doctors think it is extremely successful, the hydroxychloroquine.
Jenny Gold:Throughout much of the last year, former president Donald Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine, even though study, after study, found that the drug is not effective at treating COVID. It was just one example of many where the president helped push dangerous misinformation, feeding skepticism about masks, making Palomas patients question what she was telling them.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:After I let the family member know that the patient had COVID, the family member let me know that they didn’t really think that COVID was a thing. It makes me sad that people have to wait until COVID hit somebody that they love for them to start believing in it.
Jenny Gold:Brand new doctors like Paloma, face a Catch-22. On the one hand, they’re needed now more than ever, but on the other, they’re still learning and only have so much to offer. In the ICU, Paloma is seeing more and more patients who don’t make it out. She has to keep calling families to tell them their loved ones aren’t getting any better, day after day. It’s exhausting. And I can hear it taking a toll on her.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:If there is one thing that I can do well right now, as an intern of the pandemic, is connecting with the families. And I find that to be a really, really important responsibility. I might not have all the answers, but I can make time to give them an update.
Jenny Gold:Sometimes, Paloma stays late volunteering to call the families of other doctor’s patients, so she can speak to them directly in Spanish without an interpreter.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There was this family who I spoke to who told me that they hadn’t talked to a doctor in a while. And of course, there were a Spanish speaking family. And just at the end, when I’m about to hang up, the patient’s wife just asks me, “What was your name again?” And I just tell him, “Dr. Marin-Nevarez,” and she was like, “I’m so grateful that you’re taking care of my husband.”

They’re not a patient who I can confidently say will be able to make it. And I’m so afraid of having to talk to this person and give them bad news after they said that. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of this patient’s family being grateful for a doctor who doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Jenny Gold:I wanted to know what it’s like to be a family member on the other side of the line with Paloma. Denise Munoz agreed to talk to me. Her dad is a truck driver, 69 years old. And he’s actually the only COVID patient Paloma treated, who she remembers getting off of a ventilator, and out of the hospital. A recent study found that about half of COVID patients on ventilators, don’t survive.

Thank you again, so much for doing that. I know you just must be incredibly busy right now.
Denise:More than I anticipated.
Jenny Gold:Yeah. I can imagine. When I reached Denise she’s at home taking care of her dad. She happens to be a nurse in a COVID unit in Southern California. She knows how busy things are, so she was even more impressed by Paloma’s calls.
Denise:For me, her voice just brought me comfort. She told me that she would call me every day that she was assigned to my dad to give me an update, and follow through. She called me every single day, which was just amazing to me. I just knew I’m going to get a call from Dr. Marin today. It doesn’t matter what time, she’s going to call me.
Jenny Gold:Denise says she didn’t get to talk to her dad much in the hospital, and she wasn’t allowed to visit. Paloma, became the lifeline for her and her family, especially when they had to make difficult decisions about his care.
Denise:When she called and said that my dad was going to be incubated, it was a scary conversation for me when I hear ventilator, it’s like, “Oh no. This is dad.” She presented it in, “This is not a bad thing. He’s getting worse, but this is going to help him.” And that’s exactly the same thing I told my sisters, which I think brought comfort to them as well.
Jenny Gold:Her dad needed to be part of these conversations too, and he doesn’t speak much English. So, having a Spanish speaking doctor like Paloma, was critical.
Denise:I don’t really know that he would understand if somebody spoke to him in English about medical stuff that was going on. So, for her to speak Spanish, there would be no confusion or him saying, yes, to something that he didn’t really understand.
Jenny Gold:The way that COVID has disproportionately hit communities of color, has exposed the vast inequalities that have long defined this country. Many of Paloma’s patients in the ICU, like Denise’s dad, are Latino.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:For me it’s really hard to witness my people just getting absolutely destroyed by COVID knowing that often we’re the ones at the front lines.
Jenny Gold:More than half of Latino workers in California, are in jobs that have been deemed essential, during the pandemic.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:So it’s hard to see us working so hard, and then paying the price for it.
Jenny Gold:In the ICU, Paloma is on the front lines of dealing with these inequalities. And she’s the one who has to talk to patients and their families when it becomes clear that the patient isn’t going to get better. It’s Paloma’s job to walk families through really difficult decisions about when the medical interventions used to prolong a patient’s life, have started to cause more harm than good.

And whether it’s time to shift away from aggressive treatments, to focus instead, on giving the patient comfort as they die. She sometimes rehearsals with her team ahead of time, about what she’s going to tell a family. I called her to ask, “What do you say?”
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There’s a very tricky shift that needs to occur. We want them to understand that at this point, their health of their loved one and their prognosis is so poor that us continuing to do invasive things, like ventilating them through a machine, injecting them with medicines, is not doing good anymore and is causing harm. And so it’s a lot of pausing, it’s a lot of listening, it’s a lot of giving the family the space to cry, it’s my job, and I come in and I do this multiple times a day, but for them, it’s an incredibly significant event in their life.
Jenny Gold:Did you learn this in med school? Did they teach you this? Or is this stuff you’ve just figured out on the job?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:No. No. They don’t teach you this in medical school.
Jenny Gold:Paloma remembers a one hour seminar, but that’s about it. I spoke to Paloma’s mentor at Stanford, and he agreed that medical schools spent a lot of time on topics like molecular biology, but not enough on issues like talking about the end of life.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I think that we need to improve our fluency in discussing emotions. We need to improve our skill and sitting in a room with someone in silence and just letting them cry and letting them grief.
Jenny Gold:Medical residents like Paloma, almost always have to confront the death of a patient at some point in their training. But because of COVID, the number of deaths is just overwhelming. Paloma often finds herself witnessing a patient’s last words or their final breaths.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I hold in my memory, one of the last interactions that this person had with someone on earth.
Jenny Gold:One day, she helps interpret a conversation for a Spanish speaking patient who then dies just hours later. Paloma was the last person to speak to them in their native language.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:It is a gift, but it’s also a gift that I wish that I hadn’t received, really. I wish that I would’ve been able to provide those last moments to the family.
Jenny Gold:Every time I talked to Paloma during her month in the ICU, she tells me about another patient she’s lost, another grief stricken family. She’s working almost nonstop. One week, she clocks 87 hours in the ICU. I can tell she’s feeling rundown and I’m starting to worry about her a little, her mom, Hortensia, is also concerned.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:And I woke up to about five texts from my mom who’s worried, because I haven’t called her in a while. So, I’m going to do that now.
Hortensia:Hello.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Mommy?
Hortensia:[foreign language]
Paloma Marin-Ne…:[foreign language]
Hortensia:[foreign language]
Paloma Marin-Ne…:[foreign language]
Jenny Gold:Hortensia does her best not to show it, but Paloma tells me that she knows her mom worries about her.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:She’s just texted me a little blessing every day. My mom’s very religious.
Jenny Gold:Will you read me to one of her blessings?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Oh, sure. They’re in Spanish. So, what’s she saying, she’s, Palo, that’s how she calls me. Palo, [foreigh language].
Jenny Gold:And what does that mean?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Just means, “I hope that God gives you wisdom in your work, and that I hope you don’t have to stay for too long. I hope that He protects you and takes care of you and everybody as well, and that God helps you as you guys help people.”
Jenny Gold:And she sends you one of those every day.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Jenny Gold:Wow. That’s pretty lovely.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:And she’s blessing all the other doctors and the nurses, and it’s so cute. And there was one day when she forgot to do it and the day was really busy, and I joked with my team, “You know why guys? It’s because my mom didn’t send her blessing.”
Jenny Gold:Maybe it was. Everyone I’ve talked to who knows Paloma, tells me she’s an extrovert, which makes this time feel even more isolating. She doesn’t know anyone in Fresno. She’s trying to make friends, but it’s hard when she can’t even hang out in person with her fellow residents. It’s not like they can just grab a drink or go out for brunch.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I feel pretty disconnected from people right now, honestly. And I’ve had to call my therapist, and call my old friends, just because I just don’t really feel very connected to people right now. And it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the pandemic.
Jenny Gold:Well, I hope you’re getting some quality time with the kitty, at least.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yeah. Actually mom, I ended up taking him for a bit.
Jenny Gold:Oh, really?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I was not home at all to take care of him. I was feeding him and cleaning his litter box, but he was getting really anxious and he was not playing. So, my mom took him.
Jenny Gold:Now that Chuck, the cat, is gone, Paloma is all alone when she gets home. I can tell she’s worn out and lonely. So many healthcare workers are struggling right now, all over the world. People are trying to cheer them on, calling them heroes.

Back in the spring of 2020, when the first wave of COVID cases hit New York, there was a nightly ritual where people clapped for healthcare workers, banging pots and pans. Every day, when Paloma heads into the hospital, she walks past these signs, a superman [inaudible] wearing a mask, and the words, heroes work here, it bothers her.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I don’t feel like a hero. That’s not me. I’m not doing the impossible. I’m not bringing people back. Of course, we’re doing the best that we can, but at the end of the day people are still dying. There’s so much that I wish I could give to my families, like their ability to visit their loved ones, their ability to have those moments that I have taken with me of seeing their loved ones last words, last interactions with the world, last opening up their eyes on their own. I wish that I could give that to them. I wish that was my super power.
Jenny Gold:By September, Paloma finishes her ICU rotation. She gets a much needed vacation, and drives down to LA to see her family for her birthday. She stays in an Airbnb to keep them safe.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:It was nice in some ways, that my mom had already recovered from COVID. And so, it didn’t feel as socially irresponsible to go see her. They got me a really nice Tres Leches Cake. My mom made me pozole. It was awesome.
Jenny Gold:It was a big one. She turned 30.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I grew up in a Mexican household with a lot of soap operas, and that was the measure of a woman’s success, finding a man and having children. And I guess only thing I’ve done in my life is get a doctorate and I have no partner, and no children. So, according to Mexican soap operas, I would be a failure. But that’s okay.
Jenny Gold:When she gets back to the hospital, she stops by the ICU to check in on her former patients. She has a list of people she’s been wondering about.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I went back to look at the ones that I had taken care of, and go down the list and see deceased, deceased, deceased, deceased, deceased, all of them, except one, had died.
Jenny Gold:On September 22nd, 2020, another milestone. 200,000 Americans have died of COVID, but the second wave of infections has finally flattened and things seem to be turning around. Around the same time, Paloma gets a little space from the virus. She begins rotating through departments where COVID is less prevalent. And she sends me audio dispatches along the way.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Testing. Testing.
Jenny Gold:First, she heads to the trauma ward where she works the overnight shift.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I’ve been running around, responding to a bunch of pages. It is just a matter of time before I get another page. I’m currently… There’s the page, I knew it was just a matter of seconds.
Jenny Gold:In October, she moves to anesthesiology where she learns how to intubate a patient.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Take deep breath, [Sphere], we want to fill your lungs with oxygen, okay?
Speaker 15:[inaudible]
Paloma Marin-Ne…:There we go.
Speaker 15:There we go.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Do you have the tube?
Speaker 15:[inaudible]
Jenny Gold:In November, she works with kids at a pediatric clinic.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:All right. Let’s see what care cup am I going to go with, dinosaurs or whales today? Let’s go with whales, for mammal Monday.
Jenny Gold:Gathering one new skill after the next is exhilarating.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:My brain is just swelling with knowledge and it’s really amazing to see the growth. I mean, I’ve only been a doctor for a few months. And so, just to think that I’m going to continue to have this incredibly steep curve of learning, is pretty exciting.
Jenny Gold:But by November, COVID cases has started to climb again. On November 18th, the US records 250,000 COVID deaths. Then come the holidays.
Speaker 16:Millions of Americans ignoring warnings from the CDC not to travel tonight.
Speaker 17:Officials are seriously concerned, Thanksgiving gatherings are going to amplify an already overwhelming problem.
Speaker 18:Thanksgiving surge experts feared is now here, and just beginning to cripple states like California.
Speaker 19:This morning, the corona virus accelerating through the holiday season. Another million more infections added in the past six days, [crosstalk]
Jenny Gold:Public health officials pleaded with Americans to please stay home over the holidays, but millions didn’t listen. Across the country, this is the beginning of the third wave. And it’s the one that hits California the hardest. Daily cases in the state doubled, than quadruple.

It’s hard to describe just how much worse the situation is by December, compared to July, when Paloma was in the ICU. Looking at the graph of the surges, the summer wave looks like a tiny mole hill compared to the Mount Everest of the winter wave. And once again, Fresno is a hotspot.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:COVID is wiping the floor with the United States of America. Right now on the emergency department, the entire, what we call the red zone, where they take the absolute sickest patients has been turned into a mini ICU. And so, patients are spilling out. The hospital is bursting at the seams.
Al Letson:By mid December, 2020, the US had 300,000 deaths. In Fresno, there were just a handful of ICU beds available in the entire county. That’s when Paloma got the email.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:One of the emails that I got today was from my program director, letting us know that they need backup in the ICU, since some other residents have started to get symptoms.
Al Letson:The hospital was looking for residents to go back into the ICU, just as cases are at their worst. When we come back, Paloma has to make a very big decision. That’s next on Reveal.
Speaker 11:Reveal is brought to you by Progressive. Are you thinking more about how to tighten up your budget these days, drivers who saved by switching to Progressive save over $700 on average. And customers can qualify for an average of six discounts when they sign up. A little off your rate each month, goes a long way. Get a quote today at progressive.com. Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and affiliates, national annual average insurance savings by new customers surveyed in 2020. Potential savings will vary, discounts vary, and are not available in all states and situations.
Will Evans:I’m Will Evans, a reporter here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization and we rely on support from listeners like you. Become a member by texting the word Reveal to 474747. Standard data rates apply and you can text, STOP, at any time. Again, text Reveal to 474747. Thank you.
Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson. Healthcare workers have made enormous sacrifices this past year, Kaiser Health News and The Guardian, found that more than 3,600 healthcare workers in the US have died from COVID-19. Nurses have been hit the hardest making up nearly a third of all deaths, and nearly two thirds of healthcare workers who died were people of color.

This week, we’re revisiting a story we first brought you earlier this year. We’re writing shotgun beside a brand new doctor, a first year medical resident, as she finds her footing on the front lines of COVID.

When we left off, it was December of last year and Dr. Paloma Marin-Nevarez, had a big decision to make. She just gotten an email asking if she’d be willing to volunteer to go back into the ICU. At this point, her hospital community regional medical center in Fresno, is overflowing with COVID patients. The medical ICU usually takes care of up to 20 patients, right now they have nearly 60. They’re short-staffed and the team needs help fast.

So Paloma has a decision to make. Jenny Gold, a reporter with Kaiser Health News brings us the rest of Paloma’s story.
Jenny Gold:It’s December 15th, 2020, when Paloma gets that email, asking her to go back into the ICU. She’s in her apartment, staring at her computer screen, trying to decide, should she go back into the breach?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I took approximately 45 seconds before replying to these email saying that I was happy to go back to help.
Jenny Gold:At this point, it’s been four months since Paloma was last in the ICU. She’s still trying to process all the deaths she saw there. It’s a big risk to go back, emotionally and physically, and Paloma could be weeks away from a vaccine. Going back into the riskiest place in the hospital is scary, but it’s exactly where she wants to be.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:When I am a faculty member, hopefully one day in a medical school, and my students asked me, “What did you do in the 2020 pandemic?” I wanted to be able to have an answer that I felt proud about. That email that my program director sent, was my answer.
Jenny Gold:December 21st, four days before Christmas, it’s Paloma’s first day back in the ICU, and it’s a long one. She crawls into her car at the end of a 13 hour shift.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Oh my God. I can finally take off the mask.
Jenny Gold:The ICU was busy the last time she was here in August, but it’s so much worse now.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:When I came into the ICU, God, I don’t even remember how long ago that was, there were only two teams, and now there’s five. It is absolutely bursting at the seams. It is so full, it is so busy.
Jenny Gold:These are not good conditions for doctors or patients. One study found that when ICUs are at their most crowded during the pandemic, COVID patients were twice as likely to die, but there’s not much doctors and nurses can do. They’re just scrambling, trying to provide the best care they can to the most patients.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Today’s Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2020, coming home now. Today was rough. I was probably done at around 5:00 PM today and I stayed an extra two, almost three hours.
Jenny Gold:Paloma gets her first dose of the vaccine that day. And she stays late in the ICU. There’s a patient there who Paloma has been taking care of, who’s already lost her family member to COVID. Now she’s sick, too. All the patient wanted was to go home and spend Christmas with her dog. Instead she’s dying in the hospital.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I followed this patient’s wishes and I did not allow them to die alone. I was there, and the patient’s bedside nurse was also there, and she was so sweet. She was brushing her hair and lightly touching her on her head as if she was comforting her. I got very emotional, and I cried, and I allowed myself to cry at the moment, because it was overwhelming, and I think it was a culmination of a very long week.
Jenny Gold:It might not sound like much, but I’m starting to notice a change in Paloma. In the past she’s given herself a really hard time for crying, but this time she doesn’t beat herself up. Paloma seems like she’s figuring out how to protect her own mental health, even as the pandemic rages around her.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I’ve had to be very strategic about my own self preservation. If I run into a burning building and I burn myself and then I become another casualty, then that’s not helping anybody.
Jenny Gold:On our next call, I asked her if things feel different, this time in the ICU?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I felt this power where I could advocate for my patients, versus before this rotation, I was like, “Well, I’m just an intern, I’m really scared,” and I was just like, “No. I’m going to handle it. I’m the doctor now.”
Jenny Gold:Gosh, Paloma, hearing you talk about this just feels completely different than the last time you were in the ICU. You have confidence. You are confident as a doctor.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yes.
Jenny Gold:What do you think changed?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:I do think that I have some skills. I remember a lot of things that I learned in my first rotation, on how to take care of patients with COVID, I usually would ask my attending, “Do you want an x-ray every day for a patient so that you can track the progress over time?” I didn’t do that anymore. I asked myself that question. I said, “Do you, Dr. Paloma Marin-Nevarez, do you need the x-ray to figure out what’s going on with the patient?” And pushing myself to do those things.
Jenny Gold:On January 3rd, 2021, the US hits 350,000 deaths from COVID.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Oh, this is my second dose.
Jenny Gold:A few days later, Paloma wraps up her time in the ICU. And she’s able to get her second dose of the vaccine.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Let’s do the left side.
Speaker 21:[crosstalk] Did just fine.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yep.
Jenny Gold:Daily COVID cases in California are still at an all time high.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Yep.
Speaker 21:You’re good. 15 minutes on your timer.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Sure. Over there on those chairs. Perfect. Thank you so much. Awesome. Thank you very much.
Jenny Gold:I’ve been talking to Paloma for the past eight months. I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges she’s faced, and the risks she’s taken on, throughout the pandemic. The vaccine is a glimmer of hope. Thinking about all the people like Paloma, who’ve risked so much, it made me think again about something Paloma told me back in August, about her discomfort with being called a hero. I wondered if she sees it any differently now.

I wanted to play you some tape of yourself from earlier on and have you reflect on it, and then I’ll ask you a question.
Paloma Marin-Ne…:Sure. I don’t feel like a hero. That’s not me. I’m not doing the impossible. I’m not a superhero. I’m not bringing people back. Of course [crosstalk]
Jenny Gold:Paloma, following you as you’ve been on the front lines, you’ve done a lot of heroic things. The least of which has been talking a lot of families through end of life issues. I wonder how you think about this idea of heroism now?
Paloma Marin-Ne…:This pandemic was a catastrophic failure, and there’s almost 400,000 people who are dead in this country, because we expect that the job of taking care of others lies only in those who get paid to do so. And by calling other people heroes, we’re separating ourselves from that job.

What if every single person had seen themselves as a hero and then said, no, to traveling during the holidays, or had said, no, to throwing a wedding during a pandemic, or had said, no, to having a party, or to have a get together, or to give something up, what if everyone had thought of themselves that way? And then said, “It is also my job to take care of others.” And we’re all doing what we can as physicians, as nurses, as social workers, as custodians, as everyone who works in a hospital, but what the fuck is everyone else doing?
Jenny Gold:Paloma tells me that by calling healthcare workers heroes, it’s like the rest of us get to let ourselves off the hook. We get to absolve ourselves of all the things we could have done differently to protect one another.
Al Letson:More than 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More people than any other nation in the world. At the height of the pandemic, Paloma was one of 12 first year emergency medicine residents at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. When that email went out, asking for volunteers to go back into the ICU, all of them signed up. Since we first aired this story, Paloma has finished her first year of residency. She’s thinking about adding an extra fellowship in palliative care, to help people with end of life treatment.

We still don’t know what the long-term impact of this experience is going to be on her and her generation of doctors. But some older physicians, especially those who train during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic tell us they think it’s possible that Paloma’s generation could become leaders in changing the way we deal with death. Even though the pandemic has been so grueling for healthcare workers, it also appears to be inspiring others to take up the calling. Med school applications for this year’s class were up nearly 20%, an all time high.

This week’s show was a partnership with Kaiser Health News. It was reported by Jenny Gold, Neroli Price produced the episode. Brett Myers edited the show with help from Debra Andrew, and Tanya English at Kaiser Health News. Thanks to Dr. Atul Grover at the Association of American Medical Colleges, to doctors, [Toshi] Jiwei and Samantha Gottlieb, whose experiences helped inform the story.

Thanks also to Heidi de Marco at Kaiser Health News, Victoria Bear Netsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the great Mustafa. Score in sound designed by the dynamic duo Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. That helped this week from Brett Simpson, [Amita] Genatra, Claire, C note, Mullen, and [Stephen] Rescone.

Our digital producer is Sarah Mark. Our interim CEO is Annie Chable. Sumi Aggarwal, is our interim editor in chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Helmet Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and The Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
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Brett Myers is a senior radio editor for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Brett Simpson (she/her) is an assistant producer for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism. Simpson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.