Dr. Manali Patel’s kind nature is apparent when she speaks, with her soft voice earning a listener’s trust. Also obvious: Her penchant for hard work and proneness for heartache.
“At first we were lost,” the infectious disease doctor explains about treating COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center. Recent days are better – but not hurdle-free. “Remdesivir is helping now,” Patel continues, “but we have to pick and choose who gets it. A shortage is coming.”
In late July, Patel’s supply of the antiviral drug stretched to treat only four COVID patients, out of 32 at Maryview Medical Center. For two weeks, she had 30 or more patients who could benefit from the drug. In the beginning, just seven needed her assistance fighting the virus. Her caseload spiked, then dipped and then surged again—thanks to people attending crowded Fourth of July celebrations and spreading the virus, the doctor speculates.
Ninety-five percent of COVID patients at Maryview turn to Patel for care, so she’s been working Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. On the weekends, she fields calls from colleagues. “We need to watch every patient very closely,” she says. “They can decline rapidly.”
When a new COVID patient is admitted, she prioritizes talking with him or her, conducting an exam and gathering a health history. Her top concerns are noting changes in breathing and bloodwork. Steroids and anticoagulants are among the therapeutics, along with Remdesivir.
“I’m hoping the government can help hospitals with [securing] medicine,” Patel wishes. “While we have an increase in cases now, in the next few weeks, [early to mid-August] our numbers could go down maybe, and then in the fall, with flu season, we’ll see a spike up. I hope we get this under control, so we don’t have to see so many sick patients.”
Patel wanted to study infectious diseases for the challenge. More so than some other specialties, studying infectious disease presents the chance to master every inch of the body, inside and out—knowing how all parts should function and every possible reason behind a deviation. She’s methodical in her diagnoses, she says, wanting to ensure that a suspected infectious disease is indeed one and not another condition, such as cancer.
“I don’t have to focus on just one organ system,” she says of her field, “and the work is like solving a puzzle. It keeps my brain cells excited and activated.”
Born in New York to a mother and father who were studying medicine, Patel travelled to India with her parents when she was three. There, they were near her extended family, and she attended school. She graduated from Nathiba Hargovandas Lakhmichand Municipal Medical College in her home state of Gujarat in 2000. She headed back to the U.S. in 2001 for an internal medicine residency at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and later an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Iowa.
In 2010, she and her husband settled in Hampton Roads and are now raising their two daughters in Chesapeake. She enjoys biking, hiking and playing cards with them and, when it was allowed, travelling. “London, Scotland, Dubai,” Patel reminisces, “Canada, Cancun, Florida. Unfortunately, not this year.”
Her parents, however, got the chance to travel, although not for leisure. They accompanied Patel’s 5-year-old nephew back to New Jersey from Gujarat on a flight in July. He had been visiting India when the pandemic hit and hadn’t been able to return for four months.
Gujarat reports one of the highest rates of COVID in India, according to Patel. She worries about the citizens, noting their challenges of limited medical resources and supplies. Many are poor without insurance as well, she says, making it even more difficult for them to access care. Even in the best of times, it’s a struggle for patients and physicians alike. “It is very different,” Patel says, “and I don’t see myself returning to practice there.”
Before COVID, she also saw patients with severe infections daily at Maryview Medical Center, where she’s worked since 2016. As the chair of the infection control committee, she identifies and implements ways to safeguard patients and employees, and, as the director of the hospital’s antibiotic stewardship, she protects patients and potential patients. Working with the pharmacy on the stewardship, she reviews all orders for patients’ antibiotics with the mission to limit their use, stop unnecessary usage and prescribe the most appropriate type, all in hopes of preventing antibiotic resistance in our community.
For several years, Patel has found her name on Coastal Virginia Magazine’s Top Doc list, decided upon by her peers. The honor still elicits a delighted giggle and humbleness from her. “I hope I can live up to the expectations my fellow doctors have for me,” she says.
As accomplished and dedicated as she is, Patel and her colleagues can’t stop COVID. That’s up to others. What she’d like: An increase in vigilance of social distancing and mask wearing to slow the spread, and an understanding that a vaccine might not be available by the end of the year, as some report. February or March is possible, she believes, but its efficacy could be lacking. The best bet might be a commitment to other preventative measures.
“There’s a concern because of limited human trials with the vaccines,” she cautions. “Prevention is better than a cure.”