Thursday, June 30, 2022

“That first patient I will never forget,” Riverside doctor reflects one year after the first COVID-19 case

Dr. Nehemiah Thrash Jr. and the team at Riverside received their first documented COVID-19 case one year ago. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg)

WILLIAMSBURG — March 14 marked exactly one year since Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg (RDHW) received its first documented COVID-19 case.

Dr. Nehemiah Thrash, Jr., M.D., was the attending physician who oversaw the first patient who came to Riverside with symptoms of COVID-19.

Now he is reflecting on the past year. 

“That first patient I will never forget,” Thrash said in an interview on Monday. “I was researching patients, and I noticed this one patient who was just admitted, and she looked like she was pretty sick.”

When Thrash checked on the patient the next morning, she looked even “sicker.”

“She was at the level that I have to consider intubating her,” Thrash added. “When I went to the bedside, it was so unusual for someone to be extremely sick on paper and on her vital signs, but when I looked through the glass into her room she seemed completely calm.”

This behavior in patients would later be known as “Happy Hypoxia,” which is when a patient with low blood oxygen levels appears to be in a calm and comfortable state.

During a meeting with his staff that same day, Thrash told them he had never seen this before, adding, “there’s something different about this patient.”

After a CAT scan of the patient’s chest was performed, the radiologist called him. 

“He said, ‘Nehemiah, I want you to know that what I’m seeing on this CAT scan is exactly what they’re seeing in China.’ ” Thrash said. “And that’s when we knew that this patient was different, this may be the virus.”

Shortly after, Thrash ordered a COVID-19 test for the patient, which came back positive. 

“It was scary because we were waiting for that case to come, we were waiting for that patient to show up in Virginia,” Thrash said, adding he didn’t expect it to be that patient. “When she came that’s when others came, it was kind of like an explosion. And all of them presented the exact same way.”

The following weekend, Thrash received a call from Riverside’s administration team that he was to quarantine at home due to his “high-risk exposure.”

“Not only did I diagnose the first coronavirus patient in the hospital of our health system, I was probably one of the first people to be quarantined,” Thrash added.

In addition, half of the technicians, nurses, and employees who worked in the dining and cleaning services departments were also sent home that same weekend under mandatory quarantine. 

The chaos and confusion at the beginning of the pandemic was surreal for Thrash.

“It was the first time I’ve ever received a call, saying, ‘Dr. Thrash, the hospital’s about to run out of oxygen,’ Thrash said. “That was a difficult call to hear. That I may run out of something that is plentiful.”

While his medical team supported him through the pandemic, Dr. Thrash found that some of the hardest aspects of working as a physician during the it were differences in opinion regarding the virus.

“I had a lot of difficulties going to work treating patients who were the sickest patients that I have ever seen in my career, and then coming home and hearing that this is a hoax or this is just the flu,” Thrash said. 

Despite these challenges, Thrash thinks that there are two things that have been the most beneficial since the pandemic started: Masks and the COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vaccines have changed the course of this pandemic,” Thrash added. “Initially the pandemic was an inevitable disease that everyone was going to get, but now the vaccines have made it a preventable disease, so it’s definitely a game-changer.”

A year after its first documented case, the Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg team continues to treat COVID-19 patients.    

“This pandemic is a bad year. But it’s not the only year,” Thrash said. “We will get better, we will get over it, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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