MultiCare surgeon who survived COVID-19 is proud of WA's coronavirus response

"Those people who died in Kirkland actually helped save a lot of lives," he says.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF PRAKASH GATTA
Photo Courtesy of Prakash Gatta

It was a 45-minute drive to the Everett Memorial Stadium in Snohomish County. And the entire way, Prakash Gatta, a general surgeon with MultiCare in Tacoma, recalls thinking that there was no way his COVID-19 test would turn out positive.

Sure, he'd had a sore throat, coughing and sneezing, but he didn't have some of the major stereotypical symptoms. No fever. No loss of taste or smell.

"I was thinking, I want to get tested because, hey, there's a one in a million chance I could have this," Gatta says. "I'm certainly not going back to work and infecting my work family." 

He had to wait days for results, knowing that if he missed the testing agency's phone call they wouldn't leave a message. But finally, after five days, the voice on the other end of the line gave him the news: He was infected.


It took a moment for the truth to sink in. He had to overcome the initial shock.

"I couldn't find a place to sit down because I was in the garage and the garage was a mess," Gatta says. "I just had to sort of be away from my family for 20 minutes and just swallow what happened. Do I really have enough life insurance for the family? Do I have a living will? I know we had a will from a while ago but I have no idea where it is."

He told his wife. He told his work.

"We didn’t tell our daughter or our son," Gatta says. "We didn’t want to alarm them."


They found out soon anyway. Gatta started wearing a mask at home trying to separate from his family the best he can. Today, Gatta says, he's recovered. But while he didn't have a fever, he says the sickness was comparable to the worst, longest-lasting flu he's ever experienced.

Today, he says, he doesn't know if he'd passed on the coronavirus to his kids — or if his kids passed the coronavirus to him. Children usually don't get symptoms and his kids never got tested.

"Hopefully, they've developed immunity from me," Gatta says, "Hopefully, they're not going to get sick or infected."

He'd never had chest pains, but he has now. He'd never had shortness of breath, but he has now. And the symptoms have had this eerie way of lingering.

"A month out, I still have fatigue, sleep is abnormal. I'm more tired. More weight loss, "
Gatta says. "A couple of days ago, on Sunday, all of a sudden I felt chest on fire, chest tenderness, shortness of breath, which I hadn't felt for a while. And then I was better on Tuesday."

But he's survived. He's going to donate his blood plasma to a Mayo Clinic plasma trial, so scientists can study the antibodies.

"I get to donate that and they get to put it into a patient who is knocking on death's door and needs those antibodies to fight the virus," Gatta says. "And so far the results have been promising."

And he's gone back to work.

"I'm walking in feeling this sort of comfort, a little bit of comfort that I have this cloak of immunity," Gatta says.

But here, he adds a caveat — "potentially."


It's still unclear the degree to whether experiencing the illness grants you immunity — or for how long.

"But I can walk into work without as much fear," Gatta says. But he also knows that his co-workers don't have that luxury.

"My co-workers, God bless them, come into work selflessly, with the same fears and concerns," Gatta says. "'What is my financial situation? Are my kids gonna be taken care of? Am I gonna die today? Or tomorrow or a week or two weeks from now? What's gonna happen if I'm isolated from my kids or my family or if I'm in the hospital, what happens?'"

At least, that's what he believes they're thinking.

"We don't talk about it openly," Gatta says. "It is the elephant in the room: It's the elephant in the room. Does a patient have it? Does a co-worker have it? Are my kids going to get it?" 

What about the single mom who works as a nurse who goes into work at the hospital? Gatta wonders. What about the environmental services workers who clean up rooms of a COVID patient?

"They single-handedly save more lives than any physician or surgeon or nurse practitioner," Gatta says. "Here's a guy who does the right thing does a good job, doesn't miss a spot, cleans up the whole room, and saves 20 lives or 20 people from being infected."

Gatta has been through hell before. He was living in Kuwait when Iraq invaded three decades ago.

"I saw war and gunfire and grenades on the street at the age of 13," Gatta says. He lived as a refugee for months, fleeing back to his native India. But still, he says, this feels like the closest thing to war he's experienced.

"In a crisis, you know who you want in the battlefield, in the trench next to you," Gatta says. "And those are the ones you're fortunate enough to work next to."

And that struggle, he knows, is just beginning. 

IMMUNE RESPONSES

America's fight against the coronavirus, of course, started in Washington state. By March 18, 129 cases of the coronavirus had been tied to a single nursing home in Kirkland. At least 37 people died as a result.

"The silver lining of that tragedy at the nursing home in Kirkland is it acted as a beacon and a warning to the health care administrators to tell us this is the real deal," Gatta says. "Sort of the slow-burning, slowly-worsening crisis. Those people who died in Kirkland actually helped save a lot of lives."

Ultimately, Gatta says he's "actually proud" of how Washington state has risen to the challenge.

"We got infected earlier than any part of the country," Gatta says. "And we put into place isolation, social distancing, quarantining, and attempted to do contract tracing earlier than the rest of the country. We forced ourselves to do mitigation early."

Hospital administrators began inventorying face masks and respirators. Hospitals systems began shutting down elective surgeries, despite the serious hit to their bottom line.

And while some regional hospital systems — like Providence — have come under fire for their response to the crisis, Gatta praises MultiCare.

"I'm not shy about criticizing our hospital system. In this case, I would say they've responded well," Gatta says. "They've done most everything right, primarily because they listened to us as physicians."

MultiCare came up with a plan early, Gatta says, setting up a tiered system for which procedures would be canceled, depending on the levels of supply of personal protective equipment. They made tough choices to cancel elective surgeries.

"All the senior leadership has taken pay cuts," Gatta says,

He's a lot less positive, however, about the United States' preparation as a whole.

"We just sort of evicted the whole pandemic prevention team. We were not prepared," Gatta says. "It’s not a huge leap to say that we were caught flat-footed."

By the time the federal government really started taking the pandemic seriously in mid-March, it had lost four to six weeks when it could have been getting ready, augmenting supplies of masks, tests and ventilators.

"There is no way to deny the fact that equals lives lost as a response. A delayed response led to people dying period," Gatta says. "It seems like they wanted to wish it away."

On one hand, he's been impressed by the genuine experts in the government, like Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

"The press conferences where they're allowed to speak are very reassuring to me as a physician, as a scientist, as a citizen," Gatta says. "But when the press conferences become more like political rallies, that is less reassuring. When their voices are being drowned out, by the inevitable polarization, that makes me feel like we're not following the science."

And even now, we don't have nearly enough tests, he says, a crucial necessity if we want to end the lockdown. He compares it to trying to drive at night using only the parking lights.

"We can barely see in front of ourselves," Gatta says. "We're slowly wading through the dark. We need headlights to turn on to allow us to see where we're going."

It's not just the United States, of course. Gatta thinks a lot about his former home of India, where crowding is inevitable and lockdowns have made poverty a lot worse.

"I'm insanely fearful. I have a lot of family there still. India is not prepared at all," Gatta says. "There is still a lot of suffering to be had. There's so much of the world that has yet to be decimated and it's going to remake societies. Maybe there's some hope for us in Washington state that we're past the worst. But there's so much of the world that is not."

Gatta expresses concern that as the United States begins to show signs of improvement, people will demand we stop making the sacrifices that led to those improvements.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he says. "We still have a number every new day, where we get new patients and new admissions... There's a false sense of security right now."

He compares the recent nationwide protests demanding governors opening up the economy to the spring breakers who packed beaches in Miami last month.

"
We knew that some of those kids were going to get sick and die," Gatta says. "People just choose not to listen, and that's when they get hurt."

Listen to the science, he pleads. The science will save lives.

"Science wins over misinformation, Gatta says.  "Science wins over politics,"

But here, he adds another caveat.

 "Or it should win, at least," he says.  

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...