Through the filter of protective goggles and face shields, Dr. Angela Gregory has witnessed both heartbreaking tragedy and triumphs of human compassion since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Covenant HealthCare Emergency Care Center facility in Saginaw where she works.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I don’t know anybody who has,” the Saginaw Valley State University alumna said.
“Not even close.”
Since the Bay City native was hired at the emergency room in 2012, she has been fighting to save lives. That much hasn’t changed since the global pandemic reached the region in March. What has changed: Now she risks catching a highly-contagious virus that has overrun medical facilities in COVID-19 hotspots as nearby as Detroit.
While Covenant HealthCare has not experienced the same frightening number of patients seeking treatment at hospitals in Michigan’s largest city, a surge in infections regionally remains a possibility as the world struggles to tame the pandemic.
Still, Gregory’s desire to help others keeps her motivated to join her Covenant HealthCare colleagues – including the 40 doctors working alongside her in the emergency room – as they serve as the region’s front line protectors.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else now,” she said.
Gregory’s ambitions as a doctor date back to her teenage years at Bay City Western High School, where a chemistry teacher first stoked her interest in the science of medicine. After a tour of SVSU, Gregory – known by her maiden name of Angela Gracey back then – enrolled at the university in 2000, benefiting from its robust pre-health professions program. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from SVSU in 2005 before graduating from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2009.
After serving in residency programs at both St. Mary’s of Michigan in Saginaw (now known as Ascension St. Mary’s) as well as Covenant HealthCare, she joined the latter facility’s staff as a doctor eight years ago.
Prior to the emergence of COVID-19 in the region, her work consisted of caring for patients seeking medical care there for reasons ranging from injuries sustained in car crashes to heart attacks. Along with applying medicine, her duties include consulting with patients’ family members and collaborating with social work services that assist those treated at the facility.
Many elements of her job, though, changed when COVID-19 arrived.
Gregory first became aware of the virus in early winter when news reports documented deadly outbreaks in China. She watched with concern as media covered its gradual spread across Asia and, later, Europe. By the time she attended a friend’s wedding in Jamaica in February, the virus arrived in coastal cities in the United States, leading to early measures to stop the spread across the Western Hemisphere.
“I remember there was a lot of hand sanitizer at the resort,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘Is it going to be safe for us to go home on a plane?’”
Gregory and her husband returned safely to their Bay City home March 2.
“Within a week, the virus exploded,” she said. “I knew we would be seeing it here soon.”
Gregory and the Covenant HealthCare staff began consulting with health experts across the world as they readied for a virus unknown to medical professionals only months earlier.
The lack of testing kits able to detect the virus, the absence of known remedies, and the highly-contagious nature of COVID-19 made combating the virus especially challenging by the time the first confirmed case was reported in Michigan on March 10. Adding to the challenge early on was a nation-wide lack of personal protective equipment meant to prevent medical professionals from catching the virus while treating patients.
The first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in Saginaw County on March 21. Around that same time, the first patients suspected of carrying COVID-19 arrived at Covenant HealthCare, Gregory recalled.
“There were only a handful of people who came into the emergency room, and at that point, they weren’t excessively sick,” she said. “We’d run the test to see if they had the virus, and then tell them to go home and self-quarantine.”
As the days and weeks progressed, the volume of patients impacted by the pandemic increased, including people experiencing the most severe symptoms of the respiratory system-attacking virus, she said. Gregory and her colleagues began intubating the sickest of the arrivals, placing patients on ventilators after their breathing reached dangerously-low levels. Some patients died, including an elderly patient with underlying health issues who Gregory treated.
Those patients testing positive for the virus are isolated in rooms to prevent the spread of the disease, only allowed to talk to family members using phones and other communication technology. Gregory and her colleagues tend to the infected while covered head-to-toe in protective equipment. When working with a person carrying the COVID-19 virus, Gregory wears a face shield, goggles, an n95 mask, gown, and gloves.
“The equipment makes it harder to work, but it’s necessary,” she said.
While the number fluctuates from hour to hour, about 50 COVID-19 patients at any given moment are being treated in recent days at Covenant HealthCare. The number is significant when considering those patients are hospitalized for the same purpose, but so far, the medical staff is not as overwhelmed as its peers in hospitals near hotspots such as Detroit, Gregory said.
As of April 23, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 507 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saginaw County compared to 6,677 confirmed cases in Wayne County, where Detroit is located; and 38 people died from the virus in Saginaw County as compared to 597 in Wayne County.
The threat of an escalation in Great Lakes Bay Region-based cases weighs heavily on the mind of Gregory and many of her colleagues.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March signed an executive order suspending operations for “non-essential” businesses while asking resident to stay home. It’s an effort to slow the spread of the virus by reducing contact between the infected and healthy populations. When the executive order is lifted, health care experts worry new COVID-19 hotspots may spring to life, straining the resources of health care facilities in those regions.
Gregory said staying home to stay safe is essential right now.
“In 50 years, we may be asking if the executive order was necessary,” Gregory said. “Does that mean it wasn’t necessary, or does that mean it was successful? For the health of the population, we need to make sure certain measures are in place before telling people they can leave their homes again.”
Among those measures include increased testing capabilities that would allow health officials to identify and isolate people carrying the virus before they spread it to others. Since Gregory began handling COVID-19 cases, access to testing kits has improved, she said.
“We still have to be careful of who we test because we have limited tests, but we are better off than we were,” she said.
While the last few weeks have proven some of the most challenging in Gregory’s professional life, the experience also has offered her moments of inspiration.
“Our community has been amazing to Covenant,” she said. “There has been so much food donated from people and from businesses. I’ve been joking that I’m going to gain ‘The Quarantine 15’ from all the food donated to the hospital.”
Access to personal protective equipment also has improved because of community donations as well as contributions from businesses.
Gregory also is encouraged by the support of her family. When she isn’t working in the ER, she self-isolates at home with her husband and son.
“We’ve been putting together a lot of puzzles, playing games, watching ‘Ozark’ on Netflix, and trying to go outside when we can,” she said.
Occasionally, Gregory’s parents will visit their Bay City home. But they never step beyond the boundaries of the house’s front doorway, keeping a safe distance to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19. On Saturday, April 25, family and friends will participate in a Super Mario Bros-themed “birthday parade” for Gregory’s son – he turned six earlier this week – with plans to honk the horns of their vehicles as they drive by the household.
“His party was going to be at Valley Lanes, but we had to cancel,” Gregory said. “It was disappointing, but safety is the most important thing right now.”
She urged others to do their best to support friends, neighbors and community members.
“My take-home message is this: Try to have compassion for others,” she said.
“Everybody’s adjusting to this and doing their best to cope. I know I am.”