McAllen Medical pulmonologist’s advice for battling COVID-19

A good defense

Since Hidalgo County reported its first case of COVID-19 in March, physicians have learned much more about how the disease attacks the body, and most importantly how people could defend themselves from it.

Dr. Juan Pablo Sarmiento, a pulmonologist at McAllen Medical Center, has been treating patients with the coronavirus since the pandemic hit the county. He said he is more confident treating COVID-19 cases now than a couple months ago, when the fight against the disease was a blind battle.

“Two months ago, we were clueless,” Sarmiento said. “We really did not know what was going on. Now, we understand more about how the virus works and how it has a different way of attacking your lungs.”

Unlike other viruses, Sarmiento said, COVID-19 disrupts the way lungs transfer oxygen into blood, which is why difficulty breathing is one of the first symptoms a person with the disease may show. This can lead to blood clotting in multiple organs in the body, most likely in the lungs.

Since learning about the coronavirus’ attack on the vascular system, Sarmiento said the hospital’s approach to treating local patients changed. They have been administering more blood thinners and steroids to reduce inflammation, and have been intubating patients earlier.

Additionally, a technique Sarmiento said the hospital has been doing now is proning — laying patients flat on their belly to stimulate blood flow.

He said the recent spike in local cases correlates to the state’s efforts to relax social distancing measures, and the reopening of businesses.

“It was really good at the beginning, when the pandemic started and people followed lockdown measures,” he said. “The virus was well contained. We had just a few cases daily and it was actually very good. We were gladly surprised that we did not have this surge that all of us were waiting for. However, after the reopening of the state, we are now seeing the surge.”

On Tuesday evening, the county reported its highest single-day jump of 248 new cases of COVID-19 — of which, more than 60% were of people under the age of 30. Since Monday, the county has been on a streak of confirming 100 or more cases daily.

Since there is no cure for the coronavirus yet, Sarmiento said staying fit and keeping a healthy diet is one of the best ways to prepare for the probability of contracting the disease. According to Live Science, COVID-19 has a higher infection rate than the flu. The average number of people who catch the flu from an infected person is 1.3 — that number for the coronavirus is between 2 and 3.

“We don’t cure the virus, we basically are just trying to help them survive it,” Sarmiento said of the role of healthcare workers in treating to COVID-19 patients. “We do our best to make sure you have the best chance at surviving… the more fit you are, the more fit you will be in surviving the virus.”

Sarmiento recommends eating clean and engaging in physical activity daily. This will better equip the body in defending itself against the coronavirus, in the case you contract it.

However, according to WalletHub, a personal finance company which compared 100 of the most populated metro areas, the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area was ranked as the most “fattest” city. This data considered obesity rates, fruit and vegetable consumption, share of diabetic adults and inactivity rates.

This region also faces high diabetes rates, which Sarmiento said is a “really bad combination.”

“So, encouraging people to exercise and to eat better, and to lose weight and be fit is more important now than ever,” he said. “Some part of surviving is luck — there is always luck involved in trying to survive something like this — but a big, big part of this is how fit you can be, so be as fit as you can.”

Dr. Juan Pablo Sarmiento, a pulmonologist at McAllen Medical Center, recommends clean eating and daily physical activity to prepare one’s body to fight the novel coronavirus. (Metro photo)

A grim observation Sarmiento made Monday evening was that everyone being treated at the hospital’s intensive care unit with ventilators were obese.

“Not a single one of them have a normal body weight, so it makes a difference to try to be healthy,” he said. “Your chances of surviving something will be much higher if you are a healthy person, and these are things you can control…. At the end, it is them who helps them survive the virus. We do just 20% of the work, 80% of the work is actually them, the patient.”

Sarmiento emphasized that he does not want to frighten the community, but as a healthcare worker, he wants them to live as long, and as comfortably, as they can — which means striving for a healthier lifestyle.

Sarmiento is going into his fifth year working at McAllen Medical Center, and said that caring for locals fighting diseases like the coronavirus is part of the reason why he wanted to become a doctor. However, he said he can not help but think about how the pandemic could have been controlled much better with social distancing regulations.

“It feels like too many, it feels like if people were more prudent, more conscious, everyone from the governor to us, there should be less cases,” Sarmiento said. “If wearing masks were mandatory around the world, less people would be sick. I know we have to go back to work, and life must go on, but we can be wiese about it.”

He emphasized that though he thinks strict social distancing mandates should be enforced by local and state governments, the community should implement those practices regardless.

“I love my job, I feel like it gives me a sense of purpose, but I also think that part of this could have been prevented,” Sarmiento said. “We clearly know that social distancing works, it changed the infection rates. We should have been doing more when things reopened… These things should be laws, not suggestions.”

He has seen the realities of how malicious the disease can be, and hopes to save as many people as possible from having to endure that.

“When there is a human life in the middle, it should be mandated for everyone,” Sarmiento said. “I hope I do not get sick, if I do get sick I am a healthy, not so old guy, I am 40 years old and I am in good shape. I don’t like seeing people die from a preventable disease.”