By Kathy Chouteau
Although Dr. Naomi Adler and fellow medical professionals spend a lot of time preparing and training for disasters, including for Ebola, “I don’t think anybody anticipated this type of pandemic,” she said.
Dr. Adler is an emergency physician who splits her time between Kaiser Permanente’s Richmond and Oakland Medical Centers. As COVID-19 cases surge in Contra Costa County and beyond, prompting a return to the purple tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, she graciously took time from her busy schedule to speak with the Standard about how she felt at the onset of the pandemic, how she feels today and her reaction to an outpouring of love for first responders from the local community.
When the pandemic revealed its presence earlier this year, Dr. Adler hoped it would be contained. “And then when it was clear that it wouldn’t be, we just got to work,” she said.
“I have to say that I didn’t have a lot of time at the beginning of the pandemic back in March to take a step back and think about the state of the world. I was more focused on, ‘How do I get this disaster tent up and running?’”
During that first month, Dr. Adler described a difficult and scary period as local medical professionals grappled with how to keep everyone safe.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about how big of a surge we were going to get, watching our colleagues and friends in New York dealing with this massive surge and trying to prepare for that,” she said.
Now that medical professionals have had some time to adjust and prepare their protocols, and now that the global health care community has a better understanding of how coronavirus is transmitted and what they need to do to protect people and treat their patients, the fear factor has lessened, Dr. Adler said. These days, her concerns revolve more around making sure she’s wearing the proper PPE equipment, keeping people safe and navigating the unique setting of seeing Richmond patients outside.
“With every week that goes by, we have a better understanding,” she reiterated, but underscored that they’re “still very reliant on people trying to prevent the transmission of COVID, and that’s our best bet.”
When asked about her most memorable on-the-job experience since the advent of the pandemic, Dr. Adler was quick to point to the outpouring of support medical professionals received from the Richmond community.
“We were just overwhelmed by the kindness of the community in Richmond when we were first setting up the tents and there was so much uncertainty about where supplies were coming from…not specific to us but around the world,” she said.
Dr. Adler noted how Kaiser medical professionals had people in the community walking up every day giving them supplies like masks and bleach and donating food as they were working long hours.
“It was really incredible to see how the community really pulled together to take care of us,” she said.
The outpouring of community support for Dr. Adler and her coworkers has included lots of letters from children from local schools, which she called “heartwarming.” “People are stressed and tired, so it’s incredible how a fourth grade letter can bring you to tears and remind you why you’re going to work,” she said.
Amid the pandemic-induced turmoil, and bolstered by support from all corners of the Richmond community, Dr. Adler still sees a silver lining. Beyond emergency medicine, she highlighted what an amazing job the Kaiser team has done to get video and phone visits going so that patients and medical professionals can access each other without an in-person meeting. “That happened really quickly and I think it’s going to be really transformative for how we practice medicine…post pandemic,” she said.
Dr. Adler also referenced how, as practicing physicians, they witness up close the incredible inequities in healthcare in general, as well as in our society.
“My hope is that now that we’re starting to think about this a little more with COVID shining a light on the issues around people of color and people with less means getting sick more frequently with COVID, I’m hopeful that we’re going to take those lessons and really try to make societal change,” she said.
So how does Dr. Adler and her colleagues feel about being hailed as healthcare heroes amid the pandemic? Dr. Adler said that she’s both “super appreciative” and “embarrassed” at times since she believes they share the spotlight with so many other worthy individuals.
“There’s a lot of people who are going out to work every day, who are putting themselves at risk…the person who delivers my packages, the grocery workers, janitors [and] school teachers who are trying to go back into classrooms. And so I think it’s important to acknowledge them equally; they are doing the same kind of work.”
As the pandemic shows no signs of relenting, Dr. Adler said she makes time in her life to destress by spending quality time with family, practicing Zoom yoga, exploring outdoors and volunteering at local food banks.
“It’s another way to work with the community,” she said.