(NEW YORK) — Dr. Luz Ares, a primary care physician who shares a private practice with her husband, Dr. Carlos Gonzalez, said he thought his allergies were acting up when he first began feeling symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
It’s been 10 days since Gonzalez was admitted into the hospital for COVID-19 on the eve of their 38th wedding anniversary and his 66th birthday, Ares said. But with her husband in stable condition, Ares said she still has a “commitment” to caring for her patients in Elmhurst, New York, the so-called “ground zero” of COVID-19 in New York City.
“Not everybody that wants to be a doctor becomes a doctor,” Ares, who has lived in Elmhurst for 38 years since moving with her husband from Puerto Rico, told ABC News’ Nightline co-anchor Juju Chang. “It’s a calling. … And I think personally, it gives you a lot of satisfaction when you’re able to serve and help people. And it’s a commitment. We make a commitment to the community.”
“In Puerto Rico,” she continued, “we have a saying that once you sign up to be a soldier you’ll have to march. So you’ve signed for it, you have to do it.”
Ares said her husband first started feeling symptoms of COVID-19 after seeing a patient in their practice who they thought might have had strep throat. At first, Ares said Gonzalez brushed off the symptoms as his allergies.
“Doctors, we like denial,” she said.
Gonzalez eventually developed a cough and an itchy throat, for which they gave him antibiotics for strep throat. As his symptoms worsened, he got chills and lost energy, Ares said.
“I told him, ‘Lift up your head.’ He was, like, defeated,” Ares said. “He’s not like that. My husband is a very strong man.”
Ares, who said she tested negative for the virus, said she decided to close the practice on March 23 because she didn’t have the personal protective equipment (PPE) she needs to keep herself and her staff safe from patients who might have COVID-19. She said primary care providers are “ill-equipped” to handle patients with the virus.
As a result, although Ares hopes to open up again at the beginning of May, she said it’ll only happen if they can stock up on the proper PPE.
“I’m not putting my office at risk — my staff and my patients,” she said.
With a primarily senior clientele, she said that she’s been receiving more than 100 calls a day and that about 40% of those calling in have reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
Ares said she spent 12 years working at Elmhurst Hospital, where more than a dozen patients died within a 24-hour period last week. She said it’s “like a war zone” there, with all the “wounded people,” and that “they’re overwhelmed. There are more patients than doctors.”
Calling COVID-19 the “invisible enemy,” Ares explained the duty of primary care providers in the fight against the virus.
“If we take care of the patients that are not too ill, then … doctors will have more time to take care of the sickest ones,” Ares said.
By caring for so many of her own patients during this time, Ares is able to keep her mind off her husband.
“I think it’s better to worry about others than to worry about him,” she said.
“I’m trying to keep busy. … I think, emotionally, I’m trying to be strong,” she continued. “Sometimes, it’s like, I say I have to be strong. There’s no other choice.”
Ares said she has faith that, eventually, “we’re going to be fine.”
Until then, she’s been trying to get the message out about how serious the virus is, from telling patients to keep a safe distance from others to writing about the disease in everyday terms for a neighborhood newspaper.
“I tell them about the virus and, in a humble way, I explain to them how dangerous it is,” she said. “I think the message is going out and we’re helping.”
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