PICTURED: Theresa Smith, RN (left) with Dr. Elizabeth Babu at St. John’s Regional Medical Center. Photo by Cristina Cortez/Dignity Health Central Coast
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Dr. Elizabeth Babu, MD, of Dignity Health is a board-certified critical care medicine specialist, responsible for some of the most vulnerable patients at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo. As a member of the hospitals’ Intensivist Program, she oversees a team of specialists who work in concert to treat patients in the intensive care unit, coordinating their work and weighing in on each and every decision. It is a vital piece of the critical care puzzle, and requires a comprehensive approach in order to achieve the best possible outcome for the patient.
As we wrap up Women’s History Month, and recognize National Doctors’ Day on March 30, we put the spotlight on a local front-line worker who has had to perform her duties in the shadow of COVID-19. She recently spoke with the Ventura County Reporter about her thoughts and concerns as we inch our way out from the pandemic, the inspiration she takes from her colleagues, what’s important as we move forward and more.
VCR: Are you from Ventura County originally?
Dr. Babu: I was born in Zambia, Africa, to two Indian parents from Kerala. My parents were both teachers and we moved to New York when I was 8 years old. I lived and trained in New York where I attended Ross University School of Medicine and then trained in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate in Brooklyn. I then trained in Critical Care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
While I am not originally from Ventura County, I moved here shortly after completing my training. I have stayed because I share the hospital’s vision and priority for critical care patients.
Describe a typical day for you.
When I am working, I care for patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at either St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital or St. John’s Regional Medical Center. In my role, I help diagnose, support and treat patients with illnesses that impair vital organs and provide support for the families of patients during their course in the ICU.
What kinds of changes have you seen in the medical field throughout your career? What do you think the most positive changes have been?
I have seen many changes in the medical field throughout my career thus far. To name a few, targeted therapies for cancer patients have developed. Advanced cardiovascular and neurovascular services are now available at centers like ours — this is tremendous for patients; it allows our community members to receive advanced care without traveling to a tertiary care center. In the ICU, ultrasound has been more readily available to help assist diagnosis and guide management.
What are some negative changes you’ve seen?
As a physician, it is concerning to see members of the public doubting the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. I encourage anyone that has the opportunity to get vaccinated, to do so, as it will help protect the individual and the community as a whole. It is scientifically proven to be safe and effective.
Obviously the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all of us, but particularly on those in the medical field. How has your work changed as a result of COVID-19?
At the onset of the pandemic, precautions were adopted for the safety of our staff, patients and community, including limited in-person visits. This made it difficult for patients to communicate with their loved ones. Family members are typically active participants in the care of our patients, and we had to adapt during the pandemic. While we do our best to connect families virtually, and our nursing staff and employees essentially acted as family for our patients, it was difficult for everyone.
Is your home life different as a result of COVID’s impact on your job? If so, how?
My home life has changed in that, like most people, I have limited social interaction with friends and have certainly felt more isolated from everyone. However, the biggest impact COVID-19 has had in my life and in the lives of our staff are our patients’ stories, of their wishes and desires as their illness developed — those stories are etched into our hearts and minds.
Have you seen any concerning patterns with regards to the COVID cases you’ve treated?
The COVID-19 positive patients we saw during the first surge varied greatly from those in our most recent surge. We experienced an influx of patients with more severe cases of the virus, and we experienced higher morbidity rates.
When the number of COVID-positive patients in our hospitals decreased near the end of 2020, it was worrisome to see another surge early in the year, which most likely resulted from holiday gatherings. This most recent surge was our largest to date, and gave a very clear indication that the coronavirus is still present in our communities. We need to continue to do our part to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
The county has recently moved into the red tier. Do you have any concerns about the various restrictions that have been lifted?
As more community members are vaccinated, and as restrictions are lifted, we must remain vigilant in protecting against the spread of COVID-19, especially protecting those awaiting their turn to receive a vaccine. We must continue to mask, socially distance and maintain proper hand hygiene to minimize the spread.
What are some of the first things you hope to do when life returns to some semblance of what it was before the pandemic?
I look forward to traveling again and visiting family and friends.
What are some things you’ve learned during the past year?
The one thing that the pandemic has reiterated to me is that life is precious.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by my colleagues and how we have all come together. From the doctors to the nurses and hospital support staff, everyone has rallied and put aside any discomfort to care for our community.
Any advice you’d like to share with our readers?
It’s important to remember that the pandemic is not over, and we must all continue practicing safe behaviors to stop the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask in public — even if vaccinated — washing hands and maintaining a safe physical distance.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center, 1600 N. Rose Ave., Oxnard, 805-988-2500, www.dignityhealth.org/central-coast/locations/stjohnsregional.
St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital, 2309 Antonio Ave., Camarillo, 805-389-5800, www.dignityhealth.org/central-coast/locations/pleasantvalley.