In early February—with just a dozen or so confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses in the country—Mayo Clinic named Dr. Deepi Goyal to a new position: physician leader for the regional response to COVID-19.
It was, they hoped, just a preemptive strike.
In his new role, Dr. Goyal worked to secure personal protective equipment for staff members and set up safety protocols for patient interaction, tracked outbreak hotspots, planned for the possible launch of drive-through testing sites across the region.
Soon enough, his team was implementing those strategies, opening those test sites.
And, soon enough, Dr. Goyal, an emergency room doctor, was treating COVID-19 patients firsthand.
He listened to them explain their symptoms. Tried—like he does with all of his patients—to empathize with their plight.
Dr. Goyal, his wife (Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Dr. Bhargavi Gali), and their two kids took the safety precautions very seriously.
In July, though, their daughter started experiencing mild symptoms, and got tested right away.
She was positive for COVID-19.
The family immediately went into self-quarantine.
“We were going to be in quarantine for 10 days,” says Dr. Goyal, a Mayo physician for the past 21 years. “And were very strict about it. We relegated ourselves to the house, but even within our house, our daughter was really isolated within her room. And we would bring her food and whatever else she needed. But contact was minimal even within our home.”
His daughter fought through the flu-like symptoms, then started to recover.
On Day 9 of Goyal’s 10-day quarantine, he thought he was in the clear.
“I was looking forward to getting back to treating patients,” he says. “I was making plans for my first day back.”
Then he felt the body aches.
Rochester Magazine: When did you start your COVID-19 role with Mayo?
Dr. Deepi Goyal: It was actually early February. Mayo was really on top of things. We were keeping an eye on the governor’s orders, and taking very seriously shifting elective appointments to virtual appointments, canceling elective surgeries, that sort of thing. And then gradually, as things started opening up again, making sure we did so safely, because as you look around the country there are so many healthcare sites where a single individual spreads it to an entire unit. And one of the concerns is, if all of your staff get sick there’s no one to care for patients. So we really need to make sure our staff and our patients remain safe.
RM: And in your emergency room role you were dealing directly with COVID patients. You saw them, you heard their stories, tried to empathize with them.
Dr. Goyal: That’s right. And the great thing is, with our infectious disease folks, the recommendations for PPE and keeping staff safe were really robust. I always felt very comfortable caring for patients that may have COVID, just because we really had very well-formulated plans for how to protect our staff and protect patients from staff who may also have COVID.
RM: So your adult daughter tests positive, and you all go into self-quarantine?
Dr. Goyal: We were extremely strict. We understand how these things are spread. We really felt like we were doing an incredible job keeping things safe at home. To be honest, working on the front lines for both of us, my wife and myself, we recognized that we were at higher risk for contracting COVID, just because of our exposures. I never thought that I would get it through a household contact.
RM: So your daughter is feeling better, and you’re at day 9 and you must be thinking, ‘OK, is 10 days overkill? I can’t get it at this point, right?’
Dr. Goyal: I really thought that I was in the clear. I was looking forward to getting back to treating patients. I was making plans for my first day back. When you look nationally at the statistics, nine days is a little far out. Most people are getting it from contacts within three to four days. But we also knew it was important to quarantine for the full 10 days, just in case.
RM: So Day 9 ...
Dr. Goyal: I felt the muscle aches. Then it hit me. The fatigue. The exhaustion. The brain fog. Things just felt a little bit fuzzy. And then came the loss of smell and taste. I love to eat, so that worried me.
RM: Then it continued.
Dr. Goyal: I really felt like this would be a few days of illness and then I would be back to normal, just like I normally am after I get a cold or the flu. And really it surprised me, even knowing what I knew about this illness, just how severe it was. I mean I had a day where I started getting short of breath. Mayo has this program where they monitor your vital signs [from home] and you can communicate with them. And my oxygen level went down pretty significantly for a day. That was worrying because you know that the lung symptoms are the worst symptoms that people get. When you start truly getting short of breath, not just subjectively but when you see numbers that correlate with that, it really surprised me that it could affect me that significantly.
RM: How long did it take before you felt like you were at 100%?
Dr. Goyal: I’d say about three-and-a-half to four weeks.
RM: It must have been a nightmare for your wife, taking care of your daughter and then you.
Dr. Goyal: Exactly. With her first worrying about my daughter and then when she couldn’t see me, she was worried for a long time. She barely slept. Luckily, she never got it.
RM: How has this experience affected how you see COVID now?
Dr. Goyal: It really emphasizes just how important the work is that we’ve been doing across the region, across the state, and the country. Having COVID just emphasized to me just how important it is to prevent widespread transmission. If it knocked me out like this, with the number of people in this country with coexisting diseases or obesity, people who we know this affects particularly hard, we have to do everything we can to prevent transmission and keep those people safe.
RM: And have a plan.
Dr. Goyal: I would actually encourage people, especially as schools start, to develop a plan before you have a sick family member. We didn’t have a plan when my daughter got sick, but very quickly developed one. We certainly didn’t anticipate the need to have two plans. So we were fortunate we were able to do that, but I would encourage people to identify a space, identify a bathroom, and a plan to make sure the individual is able to get to and from the bathroom without potentially putting others at risk. So if a home only has one bathroom, make sure there’s plenty of sprays so that it can be disinfected every time the person with COVID uses it and then work out the logistics for how you’re going to get that individual supplies that they need, whether it’s food or entertainment. Do that right now.