Dr. Ryan Keay, emergency department medical director at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, was at ground zero during an unprecedented battle to save lives. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Dr. Ryan Keay, emergency department medical director at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, was at ground zero during an unprecedented battle to save lives. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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Historic and chaotic is how Prov’s emergency leader sees 2020

Dr. Ryan Keay says “the science just wasn’t there” in the days after Everett hospital first saw COVID.

Dr. Ryan Keay had plans for 2020. A family trip to the Arctic to see polar bears was on that list, but the pandemic happened — and the journey north did not.

Instead, as emergency department medical director at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, Keay was at ground zero during an unprecedented battle to save lives.

As an emergency physician, Keay has seen illnesses, terrible injuries and grief. She’s been a clinical instructor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a volunteer with refugee communities, and a ship doctor on expeditions to Antarctica.

The novel coronavirus has been a whole new challenge.

“It was a historic event. We learned a lot,” said Keay, 46. She’s been at Providence, which has one of the state’s busiest emergency departments, since 2014.

Her training covered known diseases. “With the uncertainty of a new disease, the science just wasn’t there. No one understood the risk to self,” she said. Personally, “I really learned that no matter how strong you think you are as a person, you need to ask for help.”

In a word, she described the past year as chaotic.

A tent went up outside the hospital in March. It ended up not being used when the feared lack of capacity didn’t occur.

“There wasn’t a lot of testing early on,” said Keay, adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “changed the symptom criteria.” It wasn’t until late April that the CDC added chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a loss of taste or smell to its initial list of fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Home health monitoring became common, with nurses calling high-risk patients who’d been sent home.

“One thing that was hardest professionally was the burden on mental health,” Keay said. Along with the COVID-19 toll, Keay reflected on what she said was an increase in substance abuse emergencies.

She worried about social isolation during long hours at the hospital, as her children — ages 13 and 15 — were home and being schooled online. Too much screen time was already a concern for parents before COVID-19, she said.

In August came a high point. Keay “unplugged from the world” during a solo backpacking trip in the North Cascades, to Hannegan Pass and beyond. “It was just me and my tent for a week, with a Kindle and a journal,” she said. That family vacation will have to wait. “We were going to take our kids to the Arctic to see polar bears before all the ice melts.”

There have been moments of gratitude, but also of anger. She recalls walking out of the hospital and seeing a sign that said “We love you, great job.”

“It made me feel so good, that outpouring from the community,” she said. Yet as time dragged on, she learned of pool parties and other gatherings where people ignored the risk. She couldn’t help thinking “it’s never going to end for us.”

Keay has now had her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Hopeful, she said “I think kids will be back in school in the fall. Everything will feel a little back to normal.” Still, she predicts post-COVID caution, with at least one upside — “people washing their hands a lot. We’ll see a drop in the common cold.”

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

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