COVID-19: Dispatches From the Front Lines

Stories from health care workers in clinics in the Department of Family Medicine & Community Health. Read what they are seeing and feeling during Duke Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weeks 1-3: John Ragsdale, M.D.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

By Andrea Martin

John Ragsdale, M.D., felt the weight of the previous weeks as he walked in the woods with his wife Luna Ragsdale, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at the Durham VA Medical Center. He was processing the pace at which his clinic ramped up for Duke’s COVID-19 response, the latest research on the novel coronavirus, what he and his wife were seeing in their respective patients, and various treatments and testing options. Also on his mind was his own mortality. 

“I was getting freaked out and I had to keep running to convince myself I wasn’t dying,” Ragsdale said.

As division chief of family medicine at Duke and an attending physician at Duke Family Medicine Center, Ragsdale found himself and his clinic at the epicenter of the COVID-19 testing response for Duke’s employees and students. The week of March 9, clinic staff received training on safety and testing protocols―including swabbing and donning and doffing PPE―and on conducting telehealth visits. On March 12 the clinic tested its first potential COVID-19 patients, and the next day 32 patients were tested.

“We saw those folks in the Friday afternoon clinic trying our best to separate them from the rest of the clinic, while at the same time trying to protect their identity, which was difficult,” he said. Clinic staff could look through the windows on the hallway and see people on the other side in facemasks, robes and goggles.

“It was all very unsettling for everybody,” Ragsdale recalled. He said the stress on the staff is manifesting in interesting ways. He described people forgetting to put on their badges, forgetting their wallets, or having word-finding issues.

“We’re just trying to think about so many things at one time,” he said.

But he cannot say enough about the amazing and heroic acts he has seen on a daily basis, particularly as the clinic flow has changed so quickly and so often over the past few weeks.

“I’ve learned a lot since this all started,” he said. “I’m on much better footing now, physically and emotionally. And operationally, as well.” 

Note: Duke Health’s drive-through COVID-19 testing sites are by appointment only and require a provider’s referral.

Special thanks to Caitlin Piccone, MPH, who transcribed the interview.