Posted April 15, 2020 — Working in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Dr. Kanta Velamuri found herself unable to understand what a young patient on a ventilator was struggling to communicate. The patient grew frustrated trying to use sign language and hand-draw letters on the bed, so Dr. Velamuri brought in laminated sheets of paper and a dry erase marker.
The patient finally was able to relay a message for Mom: “I’m okay. Don’t worry.”
It was a bright spot amid the stress of battling COVID-19 over the last month.
“It is a hard time for everyone — for the people getting sick, their families, the health care workers risking their own lives and those of their families, and the people whose jobs and livelihoods are affected by the shutdowns and social distancing,” said Dr. Velamuri, a critical care specialist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
“We are all making these sacrifices for the good of everyone. We will have the hard task of rebuilding the economy when the peak is over, but right now, we need to focus on saving as many people as possible.”
Dr. Velamuri, who graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Houston College of Education in 2018, is one of countless alumni continuing to serve the community — as health care workers, educators and more — amid the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“Words cannot express the pride and gratitude we feel for our students and graduates who pursue careers of service and selflessly work to improve the lives of children and families every day,” said Bob McPherson, dean of the UH College of Education. “We can honor their service by continuing to practice social distancing and following the advice of the experts.”
On the front lines, Dr. Velamuri recently worked 12-hour night shifts for a week in the ICU, helping patients confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19. When she was able to go home during that time, she self-quarantined from her family in a separate area of the house.
“I am so thankful to my husband and 15-year-old twins as well as extended family and friends for being a tremendous help and support during this time,” she said.
Dr. Velamuri has been immersed in reading publications about the disease and participating in conference calls with doctors in Italy, China and New York to learn about their experiences. New information comes out daily.
She also has shared information on social distancing and other important health facts to those in the local community and in her home country of India.
After completing her own ICU shift, she is now leading the efforts to educate and train the front-line staff who will be working with the COVID-19 patients, including nurses, respiratory therapists, advanced practice providers, trainee physicians and other attending physicians. On top of her medical expertise, she bolstered her teaching skills through the M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction program, with a specialization in health science education.
“The sadness and grim reality of the impact of COVID-19 on hospitals across the country and world where resources were overwhelmed by the number of patients may not be apparent to the general public. The importance of social distancing is to prevent such a situation from occurring in Houston,” she said. “Just like we support all our military personnel during times of war, please support our health care workers in their battle as they continue fighting while their friends and colleagues fall ill next to them.”
Yessica Castillo, a second grade bilingual teacher at Cornelius Elementary in Houston ISD, recalls her heart racing when she learned in March that schools were closing to limit the spread of COVID-19. Worried about her students, she started preparing for online instruction.
She turned a corner of her bedroom into her classroom, with pops of sunflower yellow and motivational signs such as, “Lo ÚNICO IMPOSIBLE es aquello que NO INTENTAS.” The only impossible thing is what you don’t try.
Castillo, who earned a bachelor’s in teaching from the UH College of Education in December 2018, teaches math and science. For a recent lesson about the ways humans can impact the ocean, she showed her students her fish named Ice and two water bowls, one clean and one filled with trash.
She and her fellow teachers asked students to take selfies and record themselves helping around the house and having fun.
“It was the highlight of my week!” said Castillo, a first-generation college graduate.
Growing up, Castillo said, she served as “the bridge” between her mother, who only spoke Spanish, and her brother, who received speech therapy in English.
“I was amazed by the way my teachers were able to communicate in both languages and the way they were able to teach me to do the same,” she said. “I applied to UH because many of my former teachers were UH graduates and strongly recommended the University of Houston’s College of Education.”
Trying to practice social distancing while continuing to serve, Castillo said she helped distribute food at a school site a couple of times and handed out supplies and resources to families.
“My wish for my students for the weeks to come is the same one I have had all year — that their needs are met, not only academically but emotionally as well,” Castillo said. “I wish they are able to continue to feel some sense of normalcy regardless of the situation we are in and that they continue to be aware that we are here for them during this time.”
Dr. Shane Jenks, an emergency physician at Ben Taub Hospital, had just delivered the worst possible news to a family: The patient had gone into cardiac arrest and could not be revived. On top of that, in an effort to try to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the family could not go into the patient’s room.
“Typically we would allow them to go and bereave at the bedside next to the deceased patient,” Dr. Jenks said. “To break the bad news to them and then to not allow them to go and say their goodbyes was hard. That is something I think I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Dr. Jenks also oversees airway quality and education for the hospital’s emergency department, working to ensure best practices for inserting breathing tubes, connecting ventilators and resuscitating patients. The process is high risk because of the possibility of contamination, he said, so he’s been continuously educating himself and developing protocols and simulations to prepare colleagues.
“Every week is different, and every week is struggling to try to figure out how to best manage these airways as our knowledge of this disease evolves,” said Dr. Jenks, who earned an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction, with a specialization in health science education, from UH in 2016. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
In addition to his clinical duties, Dr. Jenks coordinates the teaching of residents – another challenge as they can’t meet face to face. Instead, they hold class via videoconference.
“Fortunately, with my Master of Education at the University of Houston, there was a big emphasis on online learning,” he said. “I’m aware of a lot of the tools and have practiced using some of the tools as part of my master’s. So, I’m very appreciative of having had that experience prior to being forced to having to teach this way.”
Dr. Jenks said his wife and five children, ages 3 to 15, are keeping him motivated. When they had a tough conversation about the possibility of him spending nights away from home, they agreed that he should stay at the hospital if needed.
“I was touched that they were willing to sacrifice like that,” he said.
[Watch Dr. Jenks share his story via video.]
Diana Castillo, principal of Pilgrim Academy in Houston ISD, hasn’t slept much amid the stress of COVID-19, but the education of her 1,200 elementary and middle school students keeps her energized.
She hasn’t seen the students and staff in person since March 12, though, she said, “I am lucky to see them virtually daily now.” She’s popping into online classes, as students tune in via computer or cell phone. Thankfully, she said, most have access to the internet.
“I am incredibly proud of my staff who have gone above and beyond to contact and teach their students,” said Castillo, who has an M.Ed. from the College of Education and a bachelor’s in history from UH.
To her teachers, she advises, “Stay calm and carry on.”
The school recently held a virtual spirit week to keep students engaged. On “hats off to learning day,” Castillo donned a gray cap with a UH logo on it. On another day, students dressed as their favorite superhero. One little girl in kindergarten donned a blue mask on her face and held a sign that said, “Mis Superhéroes son los Doctores.” Doctors are my superheroes.
Concerned and Motivated
Before heading to work, Dr. Daniel Rosen, an associate professor of pathology at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine, gives a warm goodbye to his 6-year-old twins. He and his wife, also a physician, have tried to shield them from the daunting reality of COVID-19. The kids know they have to do their “school stuff” online because of a “bug,” he said.
Once at the hospital, he goes through screening and gets his temperature checked. Everyone he passes in the hall wears a mask but their friendly attitude comes through. He and his fellow pathologists do the laboratory testing to check for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Dr. Rosen, who serves as co-director of human tissue acquisition and pathology at the Dan L Duncan Cancer Center and a clinical adjunct associate professor at UH College of Medicine, is no stranger to health scares. He studied medicine in Argentina when the first cases of HIV were described and did his residency in pathology at Baylor College of Medicine during the H1N1 outbreak.
“I was not scared then but I am concerned now,” he said. “I am saddened to hear horrid stories of people dying, furloughed and laid off.”
As a medical educator, Dr. Rosen said he’s trying to find creative ways to teach medical students, residents and trainees.
“It has become a challenge to teach them when you cannot meet face to face or students cannot see patients. But this keeps me motivated,” said Dr. Rosen, who earned an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction, with a specialization in health science education, from the UH College of Education, in 2015. “I like the challenge of finding new and better ways for teaching through technology.”
‘Safe, Happy and Healthy’
“My teacher heart is so happy,” Maria Rodriguez wrote on Twitter after she hosted her first Zoom meeting in late March with her first grade students at Houston ISD’s Moreno Elementary. They told her they understood they couldn’t go to school because of the coronavirus, she said.
Still, they smiled.
“My eyes teared up when I saw them,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation college graduate who earned a bachelor’s in teaching from the UH College of Education in 2019.
Rodriguez and her team have been creating a weekly schedule and assigning online activities in phonics, reading, writing, science/social studies and math.
“My wishes are for my students to first be safe, healthy and happy,” she said. “I also wish that they create stronger bonds with their family and learn as much as possible from home.”
Influenced by her own teachers, Rodriguez said she entered the profession not only to educate but also to serve as a role model. Like the other educators and health care workers helping the community during this unprecedented time, she is doing just that.
— By Ericka Mellon
— Photos courtesy of Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Shane Jenks, Yessica Castillo, Dr. Daniel Rosen, Diana Castillo and Maria Rodriguez