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'I'm What This Guy Has': A Doctor Reflects On Treating Vt.'s First COVID-19 Patient

two doctors in white coats and surgical masks walk through a sunny hospital hallway
Dr. Marinshine Gentler, Courtesy
Dr. Marinshine Gentler (left) treated the first COVID-19 patient in Vermont.

On March 7, 2020, the Vermont Department of Health announced the state’s first case of COVID-19. It was in Bennington County, at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. The patient was one of Dr. Marinshine Gentler’s.

Early in 2021, VPR reporters began reaching out to family members of Vermonters who died after contracting COVID-19. This is the second in a series of stories about their lives and what they left behind. Watch VPR.org for three more stories throughout the week. Find stories and memories of those lost from their loved ones, here.

“The first one is always going to be a surprise,” she said in an interview, “but I thought it would all start in Chittenden County.”

Gentler is an internal medicine doctor at the 99-bed Southern Vermont hospital. She says they provide the best care they can there, but sometimes, if a patient’s really sick, they’ll send them to a bigger hospital. 

"I just remember feeling like ... I'm what this guy has right now," - Dr. Marinshine Gentler

“And so I inquired about this, about sending [the first COVID patient] elsewhere. And it was so new that the responses that I got from every place that I called were, ‘We can't help you,’” Gentler said. 

Not because they didn’t want to, she said, but because no one was prepared to move a patient with this novel infectious disease. So it was all left to her and her colleagues. That, she said, was terrifying.

“I just remember feeling like ... I'm what this guy has right now.”

More from VPR: Health Officials Announce First Coronavirus Case In Vermont

In the year since that first patient, treating COVID-19 has become less terrifying. While there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the coronavirus, much more is known now about the disease and how to treat it. And there are three vaccines.

For Gentler, some things have become routine — like putting on layers of PPE. But that comes with its own challenges.

“In order to protect yourself from airborne pathogens, you have to wear either a respirator or an N95 mask,” she said, and through those layers, “it’s very hard to make myself heard.”

Gentler is soft spoken, with a voice easily muffled by layers of PPE. And often, patients’ rooms have huge fans hooked up to create negative pressure; this helps keep pathogens contained, but it’s loud.

More from VPR: 'I Miss The Heck Out Of Him': A Year In, COVID-19 Has Killed More Than 200 Vermonters

“I had a patient fairly recently,” she recalled, “where for weeks I would struggle with going in and trying to make myself heard through my mask and his increasing frustration with that.” She even tried hooking up a small microphone inside her respirator. “And when I walked in to talk to him he said, ‘I still can't hear you or understand you.’”

And on top of that, COVID patients are kept in isolation, sometimes for weeks. 

"Any time you're working on someone's health for that long in the hospital, you're pretty invested in the outcome both personally and professionally." - Dr. Marinshine Gentler

It’s been like this for a year, ever since that first COVID patient last March. Since then, Gentler has had something like 50 more patients with COVID-19 — she doesn’t know the exact number. But she remembers all those who haven’t made it.

More from VPR: Frequently Asked Questions (And Answers) About The COVID-19 Vaccine In Vermont

“Um, we’ve had several die. I think I personally have taken care of maybe ... three ... three or four who’ve died, I think,” she said. “Any time you’re working on someone’s health for that long in the hospital, you’re pretty invested in the outcome both personally and professionally.”

Each outcome is, of course, unpredictable. But some people do better than expected, like that very first COVID patient: he made it.

Find stories and memories of some of the people Vermont lost to COVID-19, here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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