A doctor’s perspective on Delta
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Dr. Nicki Zeisig, a physician at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, works seven days in a row, in 12-hour shifts. Then, she takes a break to recuperate. Since COVID-19 hit, she explained, the week feels like it has been on repeat. She essentially answers the same questions over and over: When will my breathing get better? When will I get to go home? Am I getting better at all? Am I going to be okay? Then, since visitors are no longer allowed, she calls patients’ families. Again, it seems like a recurring nightmare. Her team is exhausted and with the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy, there’s no end in sight. “It’s like reliving the worst day ever,” Zeisig said.
Zeisig is the wife of the Rev. Alex Zeisig, Pastor of St. Peter’s UMC West Campus in Katy, Texas. The couple has a young daughter. Since the onset of the pandemic, Zeisig has worried about her family.
When news first hit about the coronavirus, she remembers reading about it online. There were no cases in the city yet. “Then everything shut down,” she said. “We were anxious and fearful of the unknown.”
After the first two positive cases at her hospital, she saw firsthand how quickly patients’ illnesses progressed. “There was the added fear of is this protective enough, are we sanitizing enough,” she said.
As time passed, Zeisig knew more what to expect. “We had a process in place,” she said. “We figured out medications.”
Then, the vaccination came out. “And there was a whole new level of hope,” Zeisig said.
She remembers early skepticism about the safety of the vaccine. She, and the majority of physicians she knew, signed up as soon as possible.
“We had seen enough,” she said.
That was a time of renewed hope. Zeisig pushed through the second and third wave of COVID, confident that the vaccine had the power to change statistics. The challenge was making the shot available.
“We couldn’t get the vaccine out fast enough,” she said. “Then, that came to a screeching halt in the summer. It was disheartening.”
Vaccine hesitancy became an obstacle. At the same time, cases were low. “We continued to educate people,” Zeisig said.
When the Delta variant emerged, the battle became tougher. Nonetheless, people resisted getting vaccinated. “Ultimately, experience is the most powerful teacher,” Zeisig said.
But this is an experience that can cost lives. “It really is heartbreaking,” Zeisig explained.
Recently, she took to social media to share her story. She told of her last seven days, taking care of dozens of patients. Over 90 percent of the patients she cared for were unvaccinated. Of those, most of them were young – 60 percent of them were between 20 to 50 years old. The majority of the less than 10 percent of patients she cared for who were vaccinated were discharged within one to two days.
While her personal sample size was small, she explained, it happens to line up fairly well with the demographics for hospitalizations reported nationwide. Patients tend to be younger. Most are unvaccinated.
Zeisig was prepared for unvaccinated patients to exhibit obstinacy, conspiracy theories and mistrust. Instead, most were simply sick, miserable and terrified.
“At the end of the day, we are all human and want the same thing -- health and happiness,” Zeisig said.
Can I get the vaccine now?
Some patients asked her, “Can I get the vaccine now?” And she had to explain it was too late. A majority of her patients regretted not getting the vaccine.
“Most patients did 100 percent of what we asked and recommended out of pure desperation. The looks of despair and regret on many of their faces will always be burned onto my brain,” Zeisig wrote in her Facebook post.
She explained that if others witnessed her daily routine, they would understand the risk. “If you could just shadow me for one day, be a fly on the wall, you’d drive to the vaccination clinic as soon as you left the hospital,” she said.
Zeisig’s nurses and staff work well together, but the level of exhaustion is palpable. “You can only take so much,” she said. “And you can only decompress so much on your days off.”
Doctors are supposed to be reliable, to be at the ready, Zeisig said. The reality is that they have suffered trauma, cry when they lose patients and are haunted by the pandemic.
At the same time, Zeisig continues to offer her patients empathy. “I gave them everything I have, because that’s who I am and I actually don’t know how to turn that part of me off -- no matter how exhausted I am,” she said.
Being present in the silence
She added, “I celebrated and cheered on their small victories, when we were able to lower their supplemental oxygen after many days. And I shared in their misery when things were not looking good even, when it just meant listening or being present in the silence.”
In that resilience, Zeisig feels God’s presence, and that renews her faith.
Often, however, the days are dark. It remains a struggle. Zeisig’s goal right now is to educate patients.
“When cases were low before Delta, the decision for all of us felt like it was vaccine vs. no vaccine,” she explained. “The situation has changed. Due to rapid uncontrolled spread, the decision now is vaccine vs. COVID-19 infection. You’re going to want that vaccine. How each of us fares COVID-19 is not something to roll the dice on, let alone during a time when there may not be a bed, nurse or doctor to efficiently take care of you.”
She added that the vaccine is safe. “It’s not experimental,” she said. “The technology used has been studied for more than two decades in labs. Now these researchers finally have the opportunity to use their life’s work to save the world.”
Zeisig also explained that, while people may still become infected after vaccination, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90 percent effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization or death from the Delta variant.
There are few reasons medically to not get vaccinated. She said to ask a physician before letting concerns stand in the way – and to seek second opinions.
Zeisig also recommends that individuals who have contracted COVID-19 still get the vaccine. “It provides a longer duration of immunity and protects them from a wider number of variants,” she said. “It was engineered that way. People are half as likely to get reinfected if they get a vaccine.”
“Please. Go. Get. Vaccinated,” she wrote on Facebook. “Stay safe. And wear a mask. (I promise it’s much more comfortable than the ventilator.)”