For the media

On the front lines with a health care hero

By The Health News Team | August 26, 2020
Dr. Alejandro Villages, a board-certified critical care and infectious disease physician affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center.

Dr. Villegas, a board-certified critical care and infectious disease physician, provides care for those who come into the ICU during one of the country’s most trying times.

Dr. Alejandro Villegas is most often found in the Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center ICU caring for some of the South Bay community’s sickest patients with COVID-19. His department is located in San Diego’s second hardest hit community, accounting for 35% of the county’s COVID-19 cases.

However, when reached to discuss the role he plays as one of the area’s most respected front-line health care heroes, his attention was focused on his and his wife Dr. Lucila Moreira’s two young sons — Lucas, 6, and Andres, 9 — and their summer math worksheets.

Dr. Villegas, a board-certified critical care and infectious disease physician, is like many parents across the country, wearing professional, parenting and partner hats while also trying to maintain their own physical and mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. But unlike most, he’s also tasked with saving the lives of those who come into the ICU — many with serious complications — and ensuring that his colleagues are well-supported as they work with him during one of the country’s most trying times.

“As we were hearing reports of the COVID-19 surge out of Italy, we knew we were going to be faced with something completely different than we’d seen before,” Dr. Villegas says. “We had to prepare for what we knew would affect a lot of people, some severely. Everyone at our hospital, especially the nursing and respiratory department leadership and staff, did a phenomenal job making sure that we were ready.”

Applying global lessons locally
According to Dr. Villegas, having had the time to see how other countries and New York City managed catastrophic numbers of cases allowed the Sharp Chula Vista ICU team to learn from others’ challenges and adjust their plans accordingly to handle the surge they would see.

“We saw that this disease was not behaving the same way as other respiratory illnesses might, and we were able to take a step back to consider appropriate treatments,” he says. “We learned that we do not have to intubate everyone that comes into the ICU. We now have proven therapeutics to work with and we can help patients recover, and recover more quickly.”

However, even with the medical knowledge Dr. Villegas and his team gained from other hospitals’ experiences with the disease, there was no way they could prepare for the inescapable fatigue caused by providing nonstop care to severely ill patients. This is accompanied by the substantial emotional toll of watching patients suffer alone without loved ones by their side, and the gnawing feeling that there is no end to the pandemic in sight.

The power of teamwork
Noting that nurses provide the lion’s share of the care to patients, Dr. Villegas remains amazed by their extraordinary ability to rise to the challenge each day. They provide exceptional medical care, while simultaneously holding patients’ hands and acting as proxy friends and family because visitors are not permitted. This dedication to patients is offered even amid fears for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones at home.

“We’re very fortunate that we work with such professionals,” he says. “From the nurses to the respiratory therapists, cleaning staff, reception and others, absolutely everyone goes above and beyond. The entire team has pulled together, recognizing we can’t do it without each other.”

Those who work with Dr. Villegas feel equally inspired by him and the “calm, compassionate, dependable and team-oriented” energy he brings into the ICU every day. From making coffee runs for the staff before an early morning shift to taking the time to talk with patients’ family members and carefully explain their condition and prognosis, his dedication and kindness to others stands out.

“Dr. Villegas absolutely shines as an integral member of our team and steadfast physician partner,” says Danisha Jenkins, director of critical care at Sharp Chula Vista. “His passion and compassion for our patients is evident in every interaction, and he frequently advocates for his nurse colleagues, who share that he is always there to support and collaborate.”

The role community members must play
As the crisis continues, it has become increasingly clear that the country can’t solely count on the efforts of front-line health care heroes like Dr. Villegas and the Sharp Chula Vista team to manage the pandemic and its devastating consequences. Dr. Villegas and his colleagues wish that people would appreciate how serious this disease can be.

“We hope the community does their part in reducing the transmission of the virus,” he says. “It’s important to use the recommended measures provided by the health department and public health experts to fight this disease.”

Regardless of what choices people make about how they will help slow the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Villegas is emphatic that not only will he and the team at Sharp Chula Vista compassionately and expertly care for each patient, they will also provide care for patients’ loved ones.

Stressing that their passion goes beyond caring for each patient, he shared a touching story of a nurse who taped a large paper heart in the window of a patient’s room so that his adult son could recognize where his father was being treated from the sidewalk below. “We care for the whole family,” says Dr. Villegas, before excusing himself to return to caring for his own.

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