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Moved by rising number of deaths, anesthesiologist joins fight against coronavirus

Published August 18, 2020

It was the podcast about Italian doctors battling COVID-19 that hit her.

Dr. Michelle Higley wept at her kitchen table in Mission Viejo, listening to an exhausted doctor whose colleague had died from coronavirus after refusing a ventilator because he wanted one of his patients to have it instead. 

“To hear them be at their breaking point broke me,” said Higley, ‘92, a part-time anesthesiologist. “I could hear the stress and angst and desperation in the voices of these doctors as they tried to convey how traumatized and exhausted, they were.” 

Listening to the Pediatrica Intensiva podcast inspired her to register for the California Health Corps, a team of healthcare professionals that volunteer to fill in staffing gaps at healthcare sites throughout California as coronavirus cases surged. She made it through the approval process and is now waiting and ready to step in when needed. 

“I wasn’t planning on signing up for the Cal Health Corps,” Higley said. “But seeing everybody without equipment, hearing the exhaustion in the Italian doctors’ voices, I just couldn’t sit on the couch. I’m terrified, but I just couldn’t sit this one out.” 

As an anesthesiologist, Higley plays a critical role by intubating coronavirus patients that need to be put on a ventilator. During intubation, anesthesiologists stand over their patients to look down their vocal cords, so it’s the “closest contact you can have with a patient,” she said.

That closeness — and the limited number of anesthesiologists in the United States — has her worried about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). Without proper PPE, anesthesiologists are more likely to contract the virus — and if too many anesthesiologists are sick, there won’t be enough doctors to intubate COVID-19 patients, she said. 

“I don’t think any of us mind taking care of sick people, that’s why we signed up for this,” said Higley, who declined to name the hospital where she works. “But we’re not used to getting a deadly disease because we don’t have the personal protective equipment we need. No one was prepared to practice medicine like this.” 

Dr, Michelle Higley

Coronavirus has forced many hospitals to cancel elective surgeries and convert operating rooms into ICU beds. Some hospitals have even set up intubation teams to cover the COVID-19 patients, and the anesthesiologist on the team intubates patients all day. 

Higley said that in some hospitals in the U.S., the PPE shortages are so bad that anesthesiologists have had to tape plastic bags around their necks with an oxygen tube to breathe in order to intubate patients. The safest way to handle coronavirus patients is by using new PPE with every patient, but if there’s a shortage that’s impossible, she said. 

“Would you expect someone in the military to go to war without a gun? No,” she said. “If I get sick and need a ventilator, then I’m taking a ventilator away from someone else. And if I die, that’s one less anesthesiologist working and saving lives.” 

To slow the spread of the virus and decrease hospitalizations, Higley stressed the importance of wearing a mask, staying home and listening to medical professionals and public health experts. Staying home and wearing a mask are for the greater good, she said, just like following traffic laws. 

She has even started confronting her neighbors and strangers who aren’t wearing masks or social distancing by explaining the permanent damage coronavirus can cause to the heart and lungs.

“My biggest fear is people aren’t going to believe this or listen to us until someone they love gets it and by that time, it might be too late,” she said. “By May, this virus had killed more Americans than the Vietnam War.” 

Higley said she wanted to become a doctor because it would allow her to help as many people as she could. Although she initially started in the nursing program at Cal State Long Beach, she switched to biochemistry before going on to medical school. 

During her time at The Beach, Higley was accepted into a scholarship program for minorities in biological research. Being part of the program allowed her to get a research job on campus, so she was able to focus more on her field of study. 

“The scholarship program introduced me to opportunities that I didn’t even know existed and gave me the idea that I could go to medical school,” she said. “The professors who were part of the scholarship program were constantly there to support and encourage me.”