The Washington Post
By Andrea Salcedo
Matthew Trunsky is used to people being angry at him.
As a pulmonologist and director of the palliative care unit at a Beaumont Health hospital in southeastern Michigan, Trunsky sees some of the facility’s sickest patients and is often the bearer of bad news.
He gets it. No one is prepared to hear a loved one is dying.
But when a well-regarded intensive care unit nurse told him during a recent shift that the wife of an unvaccinated covid patient had berated her when she informed the woman of her husband’s deteriorating condition, Trunsky, who has lost more than 100 patients to the coronavirus, reached his breaking point.
When he got home that evening, he made himself a sandwich and opened Facebook.
Still sporting his black scrubs, he began to vent. He wrote about a critically ill patient who disputed his covid-19 diagnosis. Another threatened to call his lawyer if he wasn’t given ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that is not approved for treating covid. A third, Trunsky wrote, told the doctor they would rather die than take one of the vaccines.
One demanded a different doctor. “I don’t believe you,” he told the physician.
The physician added: “Of course the answer was to have been vaccinated — but they were not and now they’re angry at the medical community for their failure.”
Trunsky’s post detailing his interactions with eight covid patients and their relatives highlights the resistance and mistreatment some health-care workers across the United States face while caring for patients who have put off or declined getting vaccinated. Trunsky estimates that 9 out of every 10 covid patients he treats are unvaccinated.
His post — a plea for people to get vaccinated — also reveals the physical and emotional toll the pandemic has had on health-care workers, who have been on the front lines for over a year and a half. Roughly 3 out of 10 have considered leaving the profession, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and about 6 in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.
Some doctors are refusing to treat unvaccinated patients. Last month, an Alabama physician posed beside a sign announcing he would not treat any unvaccinated patients as of Oct. 1. Earlier this month, a Florida doctor sent a letter to her patients informing them that she would not be treating any unvaccinated patients in person after Sept. 15.
Trunsky, 55, empathizes with other burned-out medical workers.
“We are physically tired as a whole, me included, and we are emotionally exhausted. … I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t see someone pass away,” he told The Washington Post.
Early into the pandemic, Trunsky spent about four hours a day calling patients’ families to update them on their loved ones’ status. Some of those conversations still affect him, like the time he called a woman to share the news that her father had died. “I’m sorry I can’t take your call right now‚” he recalled her telling him. “We’re burying my mother.”
Another time, when calling a woman to report her brother was dying, the woman — before Trunsky said anything — answered with, “Look, my mother died, my father died, my brother died and I don’t want any bad news.”
But what makes him sadder, he told The Post, “are the ones I don’t remember.” He has lost too many patients during the global pandemic to recall them all.
Throughout most of 2020, Trunsky and his staff faced surge after surge of coronavirus patients. So when the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first vaccine last December, Trunsky said morale and hope were restored at his hospital. That did not last long, though. As vaccination rates plateaued and the highly contagious delta variant began to spread, hospital beds began filling back up.
Trunsky said patients he sees give different reasons for not taking one of the vaccines. Some, he said, regret the decision — like a nursing mother who said she was concerned about how a vaccine might affect her newborn baby. Others, Trunsky said, remain convinced they made the right choice — even on their deathbeds.
Whatever their reasons, he told The Post, “they are paying the price, and they are getting mad at us.”
And while he said it is easier to deal with appreciative patients than those threatening to sue if he will not give them ivermectin, he remains committed to treating anyone battling covid with the same level of care.
As for those he wrote about in his Facebook post after the tough shift earlier this month, six out of the eight have since died, he said.
Two, including the husband of the woman who berated the ICU nurse, remain in critical condition.
Andrea Salcedo is a reporter on The Washington Post’s Morning Mix team. Before joining The Post in 2020, she covered breaking news and features for the New York Times metro desk.