BROWNSVILLE, Texas – A California-based physician says he has never experienced anything as tough as helping out in a Brownsville hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Roberto Rodriguez was born in Brownsville and went to kindergarten and high school with Congressman Filemon Vela. His father was Hall of Fame Coach Joe Rodriguez, who also served as a Brownsville ISD board trustee.

“It was the hardest experience of my life. The hardest work in my 30-year career as emergency physician, as an intensive care physician,” said Dr. Rodriguez, referencing his time helping out at Valley Baptist Hospital in Brownsville. 

Rodriguez is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and a physician at San Francisco General Hospital. He has contributed to academic research on the stress ER physicians have gone through with COVID-19 and appeared in the national media during the pandemic. 

“In California we have had a slow, steady, stream of cases (of COVID-19 in the Bay area. There have been areas like Los Angeles that have been hit a bit harder but nothing like how Brownsville has been affected.”

Rodriguez came to Brownsville to help out at Valley Baptist the request of Congressman Vela. He and Vela appeared on a recent virtual summit hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

“I flew down there and the next day I was in the ICU treating the sickest patients I have ever seen in my career,” Rodriguez said.

“All the medical community there, the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapists were working extremely hard. They were working night and day but they were simply overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases.”

Rodriguez said medical staff at Valley Baptist-Brownsville had to open up various ICUs just to accommodate the patients. 

“At the time there were about five times the number of cases in the ICU there as compared to my hospital, which is a much bigger hospital, a much more resourced hospital,” Rodriguez said. “It was a very eye-opening experience. It was, again, heartbreaking.”

Earlier during the virtual summit, Congressman Vela had said he knew four people in the Valley who died of COVID-19 on the same day.

“I, like Congressman Vela, lost two friends in a nearby ICU in South Texas while I was down there. It was really gut wrenching and I commend all the doctors and you the congressmen, for trying to get help. It was just a devastating experience.”

In his remarks on the webinar, Rep. Vela said communities like his (Brownsville) are getting infected at an alarming 31 percent.

“It is all happening because our federal and state leadership failed to act at the right time and now people are dying because of it,” Vela said. 

Vela said the national public health system failed the people of America during COVID-19.

“What we are seeing in this country is a real failure in the way this administration is using the public health service. Dr. Rodriguez traveled from California to Brownsville about a month ago to volunteer to work in the ICU units there. What he relayed to me is an experience where there were 50 people in that hospital on a ventilator with only two ICU doctors to take care of them. Fortunately, he came in to help them. At the same time, in his hospital in San Francisco there were 25 ventilator patients, half the number there were in Brownsville, but 50 critical care doctors.”

Vela said this, in his opinion, is what a national public health service should be doing. He said he hoped things would change after the presidential election.

“The federal government should step in, in situations like this, and make sure that we allocate our resources where they need to go. And as this pandemic ravages the country in our Black and Latino communities, but also in rural communities all across this country, those are the kind of things a Biden-Harris leadership… we are going to be able to count on when we have the leadership we hope to have when November comes around.”

Vela and Dr. Rodriguez appeared on the LULAC webinar with a number of guests, including Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a medical doctor from California who moderated the discussion, and Amirah Seqyeira, lead legislative advocate for National Nurses Unite.

Vela was asked by Ruiz how bad things have been in the Valley.

“It has been a ravaging experience,” he responded telling the story of how, when he and his wife drive from Brownsville to Washington, D.C., on June 23, he knew nobody with COVID. 

“Within a week things began to get really, really, difficult, and really, really scary. Today I can tell you the number of people I know with COIVD is in the hundreds. On one given day, I knew four people who had died. It was at one during that crisis that I called Dr. Rodriguez in California because I knew we needed help. He volunteered to go down there.”

Biden commended Rodriguez for helping the Valley, as well as Congressmen Vela and Ruiz.

“The most heartbreaking thing is, it did not have to be this way. If this administration had acted much more quickly and had provided the materials that our front line workers needed; if they had taken it seriously and our president had said, we should be wearing masks and social distanced. That is the really heartbreaking thing,” Biden said.

“I am not saying the pandemic would not have happened. It would have. But we would not have had this number of devastating deaths. We could have prevented so many lives from being lost. It is just heartbreaking.”

Vela said things were made worse in Texas because when the legislature had the chance to expand Medicaid it did not do so.

“And so there are thousands and thousands of people that are uninsured that because they cannot afford go see a doctor, they wait until they are so sick that it is difficult for doctors like you (Dr. Ruiz) and Dr. Rodriguez and the nurses that work in these hospitals to even save them.”

Congressman Ruiz graduated magna cum laude from UCLA. He went on to Harvard University, where he earned his Medical Degree, as well as a Masters of Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a Masters of Public Health from the School of Public Health, becoming the first Latino to earn three graduate degrees from Harvard University. He completed his Residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellowship in International Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. During his training, Dr. Ruiz served as a consultant to the Ministries of Health of both Serbia and El Salvador.

Dr. Ruiz returned home after completing his medical training and began working as an Emergency Room doctor at Eisenhower Medical Center. Recognizing the physician shortage crisis in the Coachella Valley, California, Dr. Ruiz started a pre-medical mentorship program for young aspiring doctors, which has grown to include over 100 local students. The program became part of the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, where Dr. Ruiz served as a Senior Associate Dean. Through the group Volunteers in Medicine, he helped to open a free clinic to help underserved communities in the Coachella Valley.


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