Diane Bell: A nurse compiles a COVID-19 playlist

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Joe Bautista has spent the past six months nursing coronavirus patients he can’t touch or see in person.

All of them are in isolation, some for 10 or more days. It’s a bit like serving a solitary confinement sentence in their own homes.

These are patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. They aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized but, because the virus is contagious, they can’t mingle with family members or friends.

It’s lonely and, for many, the solitude is compounded by additional fears and anxieties — perhaps the inability to provide for other family members, underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure, pregnancy concerns — the list goes on.

“It was a very scary time, especially in March and April, for patients who did not know what was happening,” Bautista says, pointing to uncertain media coverage at the time.

To address such fears and check in on coronavirus patients urged not to leave home to visit the hospital or their physician unless absolutely necessary, infectious disease doctors at UC San Diego Health created a special telemedicine clinic tailored to their needs.

The clinic offers telephone consultations with nurses and video visits with doctors to anyone in the community with a COVID-19 diagnosis in the previous seven days.

“As far as I know, we are the only infectious disease clinic in our area that’s doing anything like this,” says Dr. Michele Ritter, founder and director of UCSD’s COVID-19 Telemedicine Clinic.

She got the idea after a professor friend at UCSD asked her to check in on a former grad student who had moved to Michigan and was worried that she had contracted COVID-19. After Ritter called, the young woman sent her a thank-you text explaining what a big impact her call had made.

“That’s what made me think about it,” says Ritter. “There are people floating out there with the illness who are told not to go to the doctor’s office and not to go to the hospital. How can we help these people and let them know they are not alone … that someone is taking ownership of their care?”

Before long, six infectious disease doctors had coordinated the telemedicine clinic setup, aided by at least two nurses, a physician’s assistant and an administrative assistant. A nurse calls each patient daily and doctors conduct video visits through the hospital’s MyChart app three or four times a week.

Since April nurse Bautista has been assigned to call these remote coronavirus patients, check their medical progress, calm worries and reassure them that they aren’t forgotten.

When he called the first time, he decided he needed a way to break the ice. Bautista quickly found he got patients’ attention when he informed them that he was requesting a special nurse’s fee for his services.

“They’d say, what?’” recounts Bautista. The fee, he told them, was to tell him their current favorite song.

English is a second language for many of the patients, but one language all of us speak is music, he reasons.

He since has collected a list of more than 300 different titles. They include “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, “House Arrest” by Sofi Tukker, “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, “The Loner” by Neil Young, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.

Other favorites are: “Stronger” by Kanye West, “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, “Everything’s Gonna be Alright” by Al Green, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, “Helpless” from the musical “Hamilton,” “Home” by Michael Buble and Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

An elderly Latina patient picked Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Another senior citizen said her favorite COVID-19 song was “Tennessee Whiskey.” Puzzled, Bautista asked her why. “Because that’s what I need right now,” she explained.

“Once you ask their favorite song, you develop a rapport and are able to find out more about them. Sometimes they tell you symptoms they hadn’t even told the doctor,” he says.

Bautista checks in with each of his patients every day during the isolation period.

“What Dr. Ritter has been doing is revolutionary,” he notes.

So far there have been more than 1,700 virtual visits involving about 680 patients, Ritter explains. “We’re all doing it on top of our usual duties. It involves crazy hours and working together to get patients seen,” she adds.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve been part of since becoming an infectious disease doctor … . It would be great for other hospitals to follow our lead.”

When asked his own favorite COVID song, Bautista doesn’t hesitate. It’s “Going Gets Tuff” by an Orange County band, The Growlers. He quotes: “Still always remembering, when the going gets tuff that the labor of our love will reward us soon enough.”

“That song resonates with me,” Bautista adds.


(Diane Bell is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)


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