California doctor calls week working in Texas hospital hardest of his career

BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- A San Francisco emergency physician has spent the past week in Texas, treating COVID-19 patients in one of the hardest hit towns by the pandemic.

He spoke to ABC13 sister station KGO Tuesday night about his experience and what he wants everyone to know and understand.

"It's just been overwhelming."

Dr. Robert Rodriguez, has been an ER doctor for 25 years, but says the past week in Brownsville has been the hardest of his career.

"I've been surprised by the sheer number and the acuity of the patients here," he said.

Dr. Rodriguez works at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. In San Francisco County, 56 people have died from COVID-19.

Brownsville is in Cameron County, Texas, which has half the population of San Francisco, California. But according to Johns Hopkins University, they have had nearly 5 times as many COVID deaths: 272 people.

"There's typically at least one death a day, if not more," he said.

And that's just at Brownsville's Valley Baptist Hospital, where Rodriguez has been volunteering in one of the four ICU's they've created for the pandemic.

"They wind up on ventilators, and maximum support," he explained. "We're trying everything, but these patients are extremely, extremely sick."

Rodriguez grew up in Brownsville, where he says there are only six critical care physicians.

"They've been just working non-stop. They're exhausted," he said. "There's not a deep bench of physicians like there is in the Bay Area."

Cameron County is 90% Latino, a community that has also been hit hard by the pandemic.

"Everybody is wearing masks here," said Rodriguez. "The spread is not because people aren't being responsible. I think it's largely due to socioeconomic issues in terms of housing."

Rodriguez spoke before about a study he led on physician stress levels during the pandemic, which were already high. Now, Rodriguez says he's concerned about his own health and bringing the virus back home to his family when he returns later this week.

"It's been very stressful," he said.

Rodriguez says he is worried about a big surge hitting San Francisco area hospitals.

"I think it's coming," he said. "Really in the end, we need a vaccine to prevent it."

But in the meantime, he says, "The best way you can take care of front line providers and everybody else here in the hospital is by taking care of yourself and being socially responsible, wearing masks."
Copyright © 2020 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.