Featured: In this aerial image taken from the east are the sprawling hospitals, medical offices, and high-tech, advanced resources of DHR Health, located on a 130-acre site, with most of the facilities in southwest Edinburg but with a growing South Campus immediately across Owassa Road in northwest McAllen.
Photograph Courtesy DHR HEALTH
DHR Health generates national news about its courageous medical professionals risking their health in South Texas’ battle against COVID-19
The dedication and courage of DHR Health professionals in risking their own health to take care of seriously and gravely-ill COVID-19 patients in deep South Texas made local, state, and national news during July 2020, a period where thousands of area residents tested positive for the contagious – and too often – deadly illness.
The coverage by the Texas Tribune, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and other local, state and national news media outlets are the result of an important, long-standing, and effective strategy by DHR Health leaders to help influence policymakers and elected leaders in Texas, Congress, and the White House to respond more quickly to the health care needs of South Texans.
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, DHR Health’s role as the premier provider of advanced medical treatments and health care in the Rio Grande Valley has been profoundly demonstrated by its thousands of staff members, whose courage, selflessness, and professionalism have made national news.
Samantha De La Garza, in a Monday, August 3, 2020, posting on DHR Health’s Facebook page, gave readers a behind-the-scenes look into what goes on in the Serious Infectious Disease Units (SIDUs), which cares for COVID-19 patients.
“As a nurse who’s worked at both SIDUs at DHR Health, I am so proud of the teamwork there. Although we are all busy with our own patients, we make time to help each other out if needed. And although we are all exhausted, we still take the time to speak to family members regarding their loved one’s health. Our doctors also take the time to speak to them, even while rounding on 100 plus patients,” De la Garza said.
“I walked into the unit where a clerk in the front handed me a bag with two brand new gowns, shoe covers, a surgical cap, a face shield, and a mask, and then she escorted me to a room where I was able to change into surgical scrubs so I didn’t have to use my own scrubs,” she added. “That made me feel very safe. We can’t expect perfection during a crisis, but I can say that everyone is trying their best.”
The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune, in a Thursday, July 2, 2020 story titled ‘How many more are coming?’ What it’s like inside hospitals as coronavirus grips Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, featured eye-openingimages of DHR Health physicians, nurses, medical technicians, and others, in non-stop battle against the dangerous virus on behalf of the most vulnerable victims of the threatening disease.
“This week we were honored to hostTexas Tribune as they visited the Rio Grande Valley to document the fight against COVID-19,” the DHR Health Facebook page announced several days later. “Our Serious Infectious Disease Unit staff has been working around the clock to provide expert care to our COVID-19 patients, offering support and compassion when they need it most.”
The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. The publication reaches tens of thousands throughout Texas.
The identities of DHR Health professionals are barely recognizable in those photographs, as their faces and bodies are shielded as best as possible in protective clothing, helmets, goggles, gloves, or other garments or equipment designed to safeguard them from contamination.
Those images, taken by photojournalist Miguel Gutiérrez, Jr., which accompany the story by Shannon Najmabadi for The Texas Tribune, show the intensity of the exhaustive, life-and-death struggles being waged around-the-clock by DHR Health’s frontline COVID-19 medical teams.
Gutiérrez, Jr. is The Texas Tribune’s photographer and photo editor. He received two master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin — in journalism and Latin American studies — and worked as a multimedia producer at KUT. Gutierrez has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American and Latino studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also worked in film production in Los Angeles.
“When people say it’s a conspiracy, it doesn’t exist or really [exaggerated], my response would be: Come to all the health care workers that go home every night, every little cough they’re sure they have it. We’re in tough times,” Dr. Iván Meléndez, Hidalgo County’s health authority, said at the press conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, reported The Texas Tribune’s Najmabadi.
Established during the 79th Legislative session, Health Authorities (HA) serves as a critical part of the state’s public health system. Health and Safety Code establishes and defines a Health Authority in Texas as a physician appointed under the provisions of Chapter 121, to administer state and local laws relating to public health within an appointing body’s jurisdiction. Health Authorities are considered an officer of the state when performing duties to implement and enforce laws that protect the public’s health.
Najmabadi is the women’s health reporter at The Texas Tribune, where she started as a fellow in 2017. Her stories — on higher education and other topics — have prompted lawmakers to change three state laws. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University.
Meléndez’ advance warning onMonday, June 29, 2020, came hours before he, too, was diagnosed with COVID-19, followed by an alarmingdevelopment over the next eight weeks, when fatalities of COVID-19 victims exploded in the Rio Grande Valley, which is made up of Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties.
On Wednesday, July 1, 2020, the Rio Grande Valley’s death toll had reached 112. But by Friday, August 21, 2020, the number of confirmed COVID-19 related deaths across the region had astonishingly passed 1,700, according to Texas Public Radio.
“The tsunami is here.”
Less than two weeks after the Monday, June 29, 2020 news conference that included Meléndez, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz issued his own clarion call (a strongly expressed demand or request for action).
“Several months ago (on Thursday, March 21, 2020), I warned of a potential tsunami (pronounced “soo•naa•mee) if we did not take this more seriously,” Cortéz said during a social media briefing involving top county officials on Thursday, July 9, 2020. “The tsunami (an arrival or occurrence of something in overwhelming quantities or amounts) is here.”
DHR Health, which has hospitals and dozens of clinics throughout the area, spent $9 million converting its hospice center into a COVID ward in March when cases first started to spread in Texas. It housed two,
four, six patients for weeks, Najmabadi further noted in her Thursday, July 2, 2020 article.
“But the numbers began multiplying in late May, and with nearly 80 patients in late June, hospital officials decided to turn a nearby rehabilitation facility into a second ward for COVID-19 patients on the mend. With the volume of patients not abating, they’re adding dozens of more beds,” Najmabadi wrote. “The strain is already evident at DHR Health, where eight physicians are quarantined with the virus.”
The New York Times
Then, on Monday, July 20, 2020, millions of people in the United States and throughout the world also saw images and read about DHR Health and its professionals in action – on the front page of The New York Times.
“DHR Health recently gave The New York Times unfettered (unlimited) access to our hospital’s COVID operations. They spent several days on-site, and here is there report,” DHR Health’s Facebook page stated on its Wednesday, July 22, 2020 posting. “It is a real, gripping, and accurate look inside the walls of the hospital. We are proud of The New York Times’ finding and our frontline COVID heroes represented in (the front page story).”
The newspaper, which is in print and online, has “worldwide influence and readership. … Founded in 1851, the paper has won 130 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other newspaper; as well as being ranked top 18th in the world by circulation and 3rd in the U.S,” according to Wikipedia.
“As the coronavirus expands its destructive path across the United States, it is bearing down on some of the places most vulnerable to its devastation — places like the southernmost wedge of Texas, on the border with Mexico, which has seen a punishing surge in infections,” Caitlin Dickerson set the stage for readers in her article, titled Vulnerable Border Community Battles Virus on ‘A Straight Up Trajectory’.
Dickerson is a Peabody Award-winning reporter based in New York who covers immigration. She has broken stories on asylum, detention, and deportation policy, as well as the treatment of immigrant children in government custody. @itscaitlinhd
Introducing most of its vast audience to deep South Texas, The New York Times provided key background as to the monumental challenges facing the Valley, and how DHR Health and its people are facing the pandemic head-on.
“In the Rio Grande Valley, more than a third of families live in poverty. Up to half of the residents have no health insurance, including at least100,000 undocumented people, who often rely on under-resourced community clinics or emergency rooms for care,” Dickerson stated. “The now-chaotic special infectious disease unit (at DHR Health)…has been clobbered with new admissions in recent weeks. Clinicians sweat under layers of protective gear and yell over constantly blaring alarms.”
In the accompanying photo essay by The New York Times’ Addario, the captions (also known as cutlines, which are a few lines of text used to explain and elaborate on the published photograph) dramatically tell a story of death, survival, healing, and even birth at DHR Health during this unprecedented public health crisis for the nation.
Those captions include the following passages:
• “We knew that this was a time bomb because the percentage of obesity, hypertension, diabetes is so high,” said Dr. Adolfo Kaplan, a critical care physician who works at DHR Health in Edinburg, Texas. “We knew that if the hospital was hit, it was going to be a disaster, and that’s what we are living through.”
• “The hospital’s three facilities to treat coronavirus patients have been filled to capacity during July.”
• “A team of nurses surrounding a coronavirus patient moments after her death.”
• “Bernadette Canezo, a registered nurse, introducing a first-time mother, Kimberly Muñoz, to her newborn.”
Addario is an American photojournalist who regularly works for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time Magazine. … She recently released a New York Times Bestselling memoir, “It’s What I Do,” which chronicles her personal and professional life as a photojournalist coming of age in the post-9/11 world.
For medical and health care professionals everywhere putting their health and even lives on the line by honoring their sacred duty, The New York Times feature article offered a profound explanation by one of DHR Health’s own.
Doctors and nurses are pulling extra shifts to keep up with the relentless admissions. For many, the devastation feels personal, The New York Times’ Dickerson found.
“It’s not even about the money,” said Christian Gonzalez, a 25-year-old nurse, born in the Valley, who has been working 12- to 14-hour shifts six days a week since coronavirus cases spiked in July. “The people I grew up with — this is their mom, this is their dad who is sick.”
The Los Angeles Times
From coast to coast, DHR Health during July 2020 continued to make national news, including being portrayed in five images, along with quotes from hospital system leaders, in a major story published on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in The Los Angeles Times, titled Coronavirus has torn Texas’ tight-knit Rio Grande Valley apart: ‘We’re in hell right now’.
The Los Angeles Times article was written by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, who has been a staff writer since 2006 in Washington, Los Angeles, Texas, and overseas. A graduate of Harvard College, she spent a year as Middle East bureau chief before returning as Houston bureau chief.
The images accompanying the article were taken by Carolyn Cole, who is a staff photographer for The Los Angeles Times. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2004 for her coverage of the siege of Monrovia in 2003, the capital of Liberia.
Some of the many key passages in Molly Hennessy-Fiske’s reporting included:
Most of the hospitalizations and deaths this month have been in the heart of the valley in Hidalgo County, where all 2,000 hospital beds are full, said Dr. Ivan Melendez, the county health director, who returned to work last week after recovering from the virus.
In the county seat of Edinburg, DHR Health — a 530-bed, physician-owned facility — added 210 beds for COVID-19 patients last week and was still expanding, said Dr. Robert Martinez, who was leading the hospital’s response.
It’s hard to find colleagues whose family hasn’t been touched by death,” said Dr. Carlos Cardenas, the hospital’s chief executive. “We look at life down here in terms of holidays, because families get together Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Cinco de Mayo. Anytime there is an excuse for our gente (people) to have a party, a pachanga, we worry.”
The coronavirus has upended fronterizo, or borderland, traditions from birth to death inthe valley, one of the country’s poorest and hardest-hit hot spots. The virus has cut through generations of families. It has taken pastors and farmworkers. Deaths here are multiplying, crematoriums are backed up for weeks, and at one cemetery, so many graves were dug that the backhoe broke down and men had to take to shovels.
Rio Grande Valley News Media
Back home, the roles taken by DHR Health’s medical and health professionals have received equally vital news coverage in the Rio Grande Valley, which has an estimated 1.4 million residents.
For the month of July 2020, the local print and broadcast stories in which DHR Health was moderately, significantly or almost exclusively featured include, by date, title, and news source:
07/01/20 • ‘Somethings needs to be done’ – Abbott halts elective surgeries amid concerned health officials’ call for autonomy • The Monitor
07/01/20 • Valley health officials stress need of staff, space, responsibility among public • KRGV-TV
07/02/20 • Sohail Roa, President and CEO, DHR Health Institute for Research and Development: What is convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19 • The Monitor
07/02/20 • Help arrives, more needed – Nurses bussed in, but officials express urgency for more •
07/05/20 • Plasma donations, steroids combat virus locally • The Monitor
07/06/20 * Hidalgo Co. reports more than 500 new cases, 1 death – Medical personnel deployed to Valley • The Monitor
07/06/20 • COVID–19 – Gov. Abbott sends 628 healthcare professionals to the Valley • Rio Grande Guardian
07/09/20 • Rama Behara, DO, MS, DHR Health Gastroenterology: Coronavirus and GI symptoms – What to know • The Monitor
07/15/20 • Valley hospital add wards to handle coronavirus patients • KRGV TV
07/16/20 • Dr. Carlos Ballesteros, OBGYN, DHR Health Women’s Hospital – What to know about pregnancy and COVID-19 • The Monitor
07/19/20 • Virus veterans share experience of NY surge • The Monitor
07/23/20 • Marcel B. Twahirwa, MD, Medical Director, DHR Health Diabetes and Endocrinology Institute – Diabetes and COVID-19 • The Monitor
07/26/20 • ‘No one’s seeing us drown in patients’ – Crisis nurses, first deployed to NY, now on front lines here • The Monitor
07/29/20 • Fighting for air – Lack of oxygen concentrators delays discharge of virus patients •
07/30/20 • Patricia M. Fernandez, MD, MBA, Neurointerventional Radiologist, DHR Health Neuroscience Institute – What do I need to know about strokes and COVID-19? • The Monitor
Anchored in southwest Edinburg, with a growing presence in neighboring McAllen, DHR Health offers some of the most comprehensive medical care on the U.S. southern border, with more than 1,400 nurses and 600+ physicians providing care in 70+ specialties and sub-specialties.
DHR Health is the flagship teaching hospital for the UTRGV School of Medicine and encompasses a general acute hospital with the only dedicated women’s hospital South of San Antonio, a rehabilitation hospital, a behavioral hospital, more than 70 clinics Valley-wide, advanced cancer services, the only transplant program in the Rio Grande Valley – and the only functioning 24/7 Level 1 Trauma Center south of San Antonio.
DHR Health is headquartered on a 130-acre site, with most of the facilities in southwest Edinburg but with a growing South Campus immediately across Owassa Road in northwest McAllen.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).