ORLANDO, Fla. – It has taken a village to lead some of Central Florida’s hospitals through the coronavirus pandemic and one woman has been at the forefront of those efforts since the outbreak began.
Dr. Patricia Couto is one of the infectious diseases physicians for Orlando Health. In that role, she’s responsible for promoting the goals of fighting infectious disease, including reducing the rates of infection and improving outcomes for patients with various infections, through quality treatment and care. Couto is also familiar with diagnosing and treating deadly, emerging diseases, like COVID-19.
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She also doubles as the site director for the infectious diseases team at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Couto said she has been with the organization for three years, but it wasn’t until last year, when COVID-19 began to hit Central Florida’s community, that she thinks the public became more aware of the work she and her team do on a daily basis.
“I think since coronavirus started, the infectious diseases group has been recognized as a helpful group in the care of patients. I don’t think that people were very familiar with what we do as far as taking care of patients,” Couto said. “But since coronavirus came along, we have really been front and center of these patients’ care, doing recommendations as far as when they did antibiotics, what type of treatments to give, when are they contagious or not contagious or what to do with procedures if they need them.”
She said not only has she taken care of coronavirus patients each day since the pandemic began, she’s also, as a member of Orlando Health’s COVID-19 Medical Management Task Force, been tasked with providing guidance for how other health care heroes should be testing and treating COVID-19 patients, while also keeping themselves safe on the front lines.
“The task force was put together to serve as an advisor, to take everything that comes out for recommendations for COVID treatment for these patients as far as tests, treatments, how the staff needs to protect themselves when they care for them, every little aspect,” she said.
Couto said the task force is made up of a big group of doctors of different genders, cultures, ethnicities and medical specialties to make sure there is representation of all kinds during the meetings of those minds, to make sure each patient gets the best possible care.
“People come from different backgrounds, you know, what our job is, is to take care of the patient not only as a medical machine, but also as what they are into their core. Many things that are important for one culture are differently perceived, or other people feel it differently. And it’s important to keep that in mind when you make recommendations for everybody,” Couto said. “Things that are appropriate for some people, they’re not as appropriate for others, and to make a good, an educated decision, it takes, it takes a lot of everybody.”
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The task force meets weekly to discuss any potential problems that could arise in the response to the ongoing pandemic. From COVID-19 testing to vaccine rollout, as the pandemic has evolved, so have the topics of discussion during their meetings. Once the health experts have all weighed in and collectively, they’ve developed the best set of guidance they can, they pass those rules and regulations along to each of their hospitals.
Basically, her job has been critical to every COVID-19 patient who has entered one of the system’s hospitals. To put that into perspective, data shows nearly 2,500 people have been hospitalized in Orange County alone as of the initial publishing of this story, which was written one year after the pandemic began.
Couto, a Venezuela native and the first physician in her family, has worn many hats throughout her career, especially during the pandemic, and she’s managed to balance her demanding schedule all while raising her daughter, who’s currently attending school virtually due to the pandemic.
While the thought of having to care for people all day only to come home and care for another person might sound exhausting to some, Couto said for her, it’s the opposite and that time with her daughter is “the best part” of her day. She said it actually recharges her and motivates her to be a better physician, knowing she’s showing her daughter and other young women who might be watching her that anything is possible.
“I want her to be a good, useful person for everyone else moving forward, and know that she can do whatever she puts her mind to,” Couto said. “I think we, as human beings, we have the potential to do great good. And I think if I could show her that, at least that, I will be very, very proud of myself as a mom.”
Couto said she was inspired by other great women on her journey to health care, including her own mother.
“We have to choose very young, what we want to do in our countries in order to move from school to professional studies and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was 16 and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to help people, but I just didn’t know how. And my mom -- nobody’s a physician in my household at all – and my mom always wanted to be a nurse. And she told me, ‘You know, maybe you could be a doctor, you could help a lot of people.’ And that’s all it took,” Couto said. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could. I don’t know if I could, but maybe I could.’ And we just went there, she helped me to enroll in the university. She did a lot of things for me and she’s a major part of why I’m here.”
Later down the road, she was inspired by another infectious diseases doctor who was her internal medicine teacher during her third year of school. Couto said the doctor stood out to her for many reasons, most notably because she was able to crack a case that so many others had tried to but couldn’t. But Couto was also moved by the way she cared for others.
“It’s also the way that that she spoke to people, to the patients and to their family members. That really strikes you because you have a different idea of what being a doctor is, but when you’re right there, when you see a physician like that, you kind of go like, ‘I’d like to be like that, I could be like that. I like that style,’” Couto said.
Since then, Couto has worked nonstop to be that same kind of caring physician, knowing how much weight she carries in her role.
And during the past year, she’s been reminded countless times just how heavy her line of work can be, dealing with patients and families during some of their most difficult times. But she said she’s also been reminded of just how rewarding it can be.
There’s one moment in particular from last year that she says she’ll never forget.
“When we discharged the first coronavirus patient from the hospital. That was a very good moment, that was a crown jewel, when that patient left on the wheelchair … everybody just went out. And everybody just applauded, and everybody was so happy. We were very, very, very happy about that,” Couto said. “It wasn’t quick. It took awhile for the patient to recover, so by the moment that they did, it was just incredible. And it was good for the staff, too, because you’re there watching the news and watching how all these people are getting sick everywhere. And it was, it was important. It was a key moment.”
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