Born and raised in India, Dr. Pallavi Sunkara found a great desire to help others sparked while doing volunteer work in high school, as the encouragement of a trusted teacher guided her on a path that ultimately led her to medicine.
That has proved fortuitous for both Sunkara and her patients, as the hospitalist has served as one of St. Charles Parish Hospital’s frontline physicians in the battle against COVID-19.
She said much has changed from the start of the pandemic, the most important aspect the increased focus on maintaining social distancing and wearing face masks in public, and in some instances, at home as well.
Sunkara can speak to the latter point from her own experience. For the first four months of the pandemic, out of an abundance of caution she did not hug or kiss her five-year-old daughter and maintained six feet of distance from her husband. That aspect only changed after St. Charles Parish Hospital had zero cases materialize for two consecutive weeks.
Given her position’s elevated risk of contracting the virus, the prospect of spreading it to family was enough to raise anxiety considerably, before considering the task at hand of treating and nursing her patients back to health. That was a serious challenge early on, as in so many ways physicians found themselves in the dark.
“I have never felt so lost about treating a disease,” said Sunkara, who graduated medical school in 2006 and has been practicing as a hospitalist since 2011. “I felt helpless and frustrated multiple times when we were losing patients in spite of doing everything that could be done.”
One thing that kept her going was the support of her co-workers and the realization that, given the circumstances, they were collectively doing all they could.
As more information has been researched and has come to light, that outlook has changed for the better. But, Sunkara warns, it is no time to relax. The virus poses a significant threat, and for many battling other underlying health concerns, that threat intensifies.
“Patients who have less co-morbid conditions, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, chronic lung condition, and are non-smokers improved better compared to those who have one of these conditions,” she said. “Prevention is the best option as we do not have full knowledge about this virus at this time, though we are seeing some treatment therapies do help some patients.”
One thing Sunkara says concerns her greatly is the spread of different conspiracy theories concerning the virus.
“This is a real and serious infection,” Sunkara said. “This can infect people of all ages from newborn to older people … this is not similar to other virus infections. It spreads faster and it is more dangerous. We’re still learning and developing new treatment protocols.”
While older people have seen more apparent mortality risk, she said younger people are becoming seriously infected as well.
“We cannot predict who is going to get seriously infected,” she said, echoing that the best option is prevention. “Please wear a facemask at all public places and maintain social distancing at all times. Stay home as much as you can. I know it is frustrating to stay home, but it is better than staying in a hospital room alone with no visitors, or worse, being on a ventilator and in a comatose state.”
For Sunkara, there is no sugarcoating the situation. But when she can help guide a patient to recovery, she said it’s nothing short of a privilege that comes with “immense joy and satisfaction.” When she is able to treat a sick patient suffering from a complex problem and they are able to leave the hospital in good health, there’s not much like it.
“That is definitely my favorite part of the job,” Sunkara said.