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Matt Denefe, second-year resident in emergency medicine, shares lessons from COVID-19

Published: March 12, 2021   
Courtesy Matt Denefe
Dr. Matt Denefe has seen Arkansas’ entire COVID-19 pandemic as an emergency room physician in residency at a Little Rock hospital. He is a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche).

Matt Denefe, 28, is a second-year resident in emergency medicine at a Little Rock hospital. He will finish his residency in the summer of 2022. The married father of three, who attends Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche), shared with Arkansas Catholic the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic he saw firsthand during his medical training.


How often have you worked with COVID-19 patients? 

Pretty much every single shift. I'd see, on bad days, upwards of seven patients in a single shift that were confirmed positive, and that's not even counting all the people that we screened and came back positive later.


When did you realize this virus was a serious threat? 

I think we had our first cases like early in March (2020). And whenever we saw it spread from just a few cases to hundreds so quickly, that's when I realized that nothing was going to be the same for a while. 


Being on the front lines of that, what was going through your mind when you realized this was not normal? 

A lot of it was just general trying to figure out what our new protocols would be; how are we going to keep ourselves safe, how we're going to keep our families safe. And then, what advice are we going to be giving the patients being treated to keep them safe. But it was definitely a lot of changes quickly and you had to be willing to adapt and take everything in stride.


Were there any accommodations you had to make to keep your family safe? 

There's multiple, aside from just being quarantined like everybody else except not taking part in all the social activities we're used to. We couldn’t have friends and family over because I was always high risk since I'm seeing patients every single day and I would also change out of my work clothes before anybody was allowed to see me and just taking extra precautions because I'm definitely high risk exposure for people … there were definitely some times where I had a high risk exposure so I would self-quarantine from my family for like a week or so just to make sure I didn't have any symptoms.


And how hard was that because obviously you have young children? 

It was incredibly hard especially because my kids were young and didn't fully understand why. Also, the pandemic happened while we were expecting our third child so one of those quarantine times was right about when my wife was supposed to be due so there's a lot of stuff up in the air about if I would be able to be present for the birth and a lot of uncertainties.


After a year of living through this pandemic and treating patients with COVID-19, what is the biggest lesson you have learned?

Probably not take your community for granted and to also realize that your first community is your immediate family. It's really easy to focus on all your extracurricular activities to provide fulfillment. When at the end of the day it's your immediate family that you live with that should bring you the most happiness.


Have you learned anything about getting your patients to trust you? 

It's all about bedside manner. I mean the first time you say hi to them, you're already starting to make an impression. And you can treat them but if they don't follow your treatments, then you've done nothing, so if you don't build a rapport with the patient, then they're going to not make any changes and you'll see them again in a worse situation.


At the thick of the pandemic, what did your emergency room look like? 

Almost any symptom that was concerning for COVID they were placed on full quarantine, meaning every single staff member that saw them had to put on a face mask, new gloves, a protective gown, eye wear. And so every single time he walked into the room, you had to put on all those things. So that increased the time it takes to see patients because you can't just walk in the room and be done super quick. And then also trying to keep people safe in the waiting room as they're all in close quarters. And then sometimes, if you don't know if they're positive or not, you have to treat them like they are positive. Then you'd see people that have chronic medical conditions, they can just go downhill pretty quickly with adding COVID on top of that. So, lots of intubating people which is a high-risk procedure when they have COVID. And just doing our best to keep patients safe and us and our families.


What was a moment that broke your heart during this pandemic? 

Probably the hardest thing was all the restrictions that the hospitals needed to put in place regarding visitors. Because, obviously we can't have a bunch of visitors because those are more points of possible exposure that would be detrimental to staff and other patients. But that also means that patients who are critically ill didn't have their loved ones beside them. So there's many people who just had the nursing staff and the physician staff to be by their side while they passed on, or went through some of the hardest moments of their life. That was probably the hardest thing is seeing people have to go through this without their primary support group.


Did you ever have the opportunity to either pray with someone or be with them because their family couldn’t?

Just in general, that happens even without the pandemic whenever somebody is in such a critical condition that family doesn't have time to get there. But I tried to be open to all patients and their needs and if they request to pray together, then I'll gladly do that with them. And other people just want to get in contact with their family as soon as possible. 


Going forward in your medical career, what is something you can take away from this experience? 

There's a lot of people who are just overall uncertain and fearful of any information they're given, and if they can trust it. That thoroughly explaining facts and trying to do what's best for people is incredibly important and people won't just blindly blindly listen to things anymore because there's so much misinformation.


How has your Catholic faith helped you emotionally and mentally to do your job? 

The main thing that it's helped me with is providing me a lens through which to view all the suffering and hardships that are going on. And it allows me to look at both the life and death and all the struggles in between with a purpose in mind, and that there's a reason for everything. And you can find good no matter what the circumstances are. So more of a moral lens to view everything with has given me a better perspective.


As a doctor, is it frustrating for you when people do not follow safety protocols? 

That’s probably one of the biggest frustrations of this whole pandemic. I understand where it comes from, because there is so much misinformation out there that the general public, they're really, like, why should they believe us versus somebody else that they hear on TV because it's all just information? But it is frustrating to see people you care about, or just people in your community, not take this thing seriously and then unfortunately you end up seeing them later on down the road after the consequences are being paid. A lot of this could be prevented if people were to take things more seriously and do their best part to limit their exposures and their risks.


What is the best advice you can give to people as we continue through this pandemic? 

From a medical standpoint, my No. 1 piece of advice is we have to get people vaccinated; and we can't force people to get vaccinated, so people need to really sit down and pray and think about this, because the pandemic is not going to end without us getting vaccinated. As you can see, there's other places in the world where there's different strains and things coming about. So this thing will just keep going in circles, and we'll have to continue living like this until there's enough people vaccinated, that we develop a herd immunity to stop this thing. And we've already seen how productive things are without the vaccine, where it just slowly, slowly keeps growing. And that's not a world that I want to see for the long haul. So, we have to get people vaccinated. 


For those nervous about getting the vaccine, what would you tell them? 

I know that a lot of people have some fear around the vaccines and if it's safe and what are the consequences and all that? Much of the data comes from third parties that are unbiased and are not getting financial benefit from the companies themselves. All that data is pointing to that these vaccines are safe. But, there's lots of things we do know and that is that COVID can be deadly for people, young and old. A lot of the long-term side effects of COVID are still yet to be discovered. So I know that the majority of people will get through COVID and hopefully have limited symptoms. But unfortunately that's not something that everybody gets to come out with that good of an outcome.


From a Catholic standpoint, what should the faithful do in this pandemic? 

I think Catholics need to be one of the groups that pays attention to the science. Catholics have always been one to believe in science and faith and that they can actually work together. ... And part of being pro-life is not only protecting your own life but protecting the lives of those around us, both the young and the old and everything in between. And right now all the data is pointing to the best thing we can do to protect those around us is to limit our exposures, to get vaccinated when it's an opportunity. 

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